<< back to the archive list

September 14th, 2005

Foot or feet? / immanitous / for free

by Barbara Wallraff

Alfred Webster, of Carrabassett Valley, Maine, writes: “Carpenters use the singular ‘foot’ when mentioning a piece of lumber that is multiple feet in length -- for example, ‘a 14-foot two-by-four.’ Shouldn’t this be ‘feet’?”

Dear Alfred: You might think so, because of course you’d say “the two-by-four is 14 feet long.” But nearly all nouns used attributively -- that is, as adjectives -- are singular. A bookshelf, for instance, is meant to hold more than one book. A football is kicked by many feet. Then, too, it wouldn’t sound right to say “a 3-feet-long shelf” or “a 6-feet-tall man,” would it? And it isn’t right. Neither is “a 14-feet two-by-four.” The carpenters you know are using perfectly good English.

Paul W. Finnegan, of Boston, writes: “What does the word ‘immanitous’ mean? It is found in ‘Birds Without Wings,’ by Louis de Bernieres, but no one I know can find a definition for it -- and believe me, we have looked in a lot of dictionaries. Can you help?”

Dear Paul: I sent an e-mail to Louis de Bernieres on your behalf, but I’m afraid I’m still waiting for a response. So here’s my best guess. “Immanitous” is most likely an adjective that the author coined from the noun “immanity.” This noun appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, which calls it obsolete. And no wonder: The most recent citation given is from 1699. The definitions of “immanity” are “hugeness; monstrosity, enormity” and “monstrous cruelty; atrocious savagery.”

Those, however, are preceded by a summary definition, which reads “the quality of being immane.” And by golly, not only is “immane” an adjective, but also it’s said to be merely archaic, not obsolete; it was seen in print as recently as 1835. As you’d imagine, it means “monstrous in size or strength; huge, vast, enormous, tremendous” and “monstrous in character; inhumanly cruel or savage.”

Does either of those meanings fit the context where de Bernieres wrote “immanitous”? The first one sure seems to. De Bernieres wrote: “These immanitous men were single-handedly capable of carrying pianos uphill on their necks, in the full fire of the sun, with nothing but a cushion by way of assistance.” “Monstrous in strength” indeed! I wonder why if de Bernieres knew the word “immanity,” he wasn’t familiar with “immane,” or didn’t choose to use it. If he ever writes me back with the answer to that, I’ll let you know.

Dorothy M. Wylo, of Redford, Mich., writes: “One of my pet peeves is hearing or reading ‘Buy three and get the next one for free.’ Since this means the next item is free of charge, isn’t it unnecessary to add the ‘for’?”

Dear Dorothy: You’re absolutely right, according to language traditionalists. I was taught that “Get the next one free” is correct. But sometimes the “for” helps make the meaning clearer. For instance, a recent article on the CNN Web site was headlined “Travelers younger than 2 still fly for free.” The possibility that babies might “fly free” on an airplane seems kind of scary, don’t you agree? When talking or writing about free things, it’s always worth asking yourself if the “for” serves a purpose. If it does -- only if it does -- it’s legit.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list