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May 3rd, 2006

Double that / wildlife is or are

by Barbara Wallraff

Olaf Kraulis, of Gooderham, Ontario, writes: “My best friend is a stickler for grammar, and a formidable one at that. He is a senior lawyer, actively engaged in grammatical disputes with draftsmen (or draftspersons, perhaps) of legislation. In one of his recent forays he included the sentence ‘But I don’t know that that necessarily follows.’ Can his double ‘that’ possibly be correct? I will abide by your judgment, whatever it turns out to be. My friend will abide by your judgment if you side with him.”

Dear Olaf: Well, then you’re both willing to abide by my judgment -- how nice. Sometimes “that” just connects “I don’t know” to what comes next -- as in “I don’t know that you’re going to like what I say.” And sometimes it has another role. It can be what you don’t know: “I don’t know that.” Or it can be the subject of a clause about what you don’t know -- as the second “that” is in your friend’s sentence. When “that” has the role of subject, readers might mistake it for a connecting “that” unless you give them one of those too. “I don’t know that necessarily follows” is momentarily confusing. Whenever the lack of a “that” is more of a stumbling block than two “that”s in a row, put them both in.

Michael McSunas, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., writes: “Is ‘wildife’ singular or plural? Is it proper to say ‘wildlife is’ or ‘wildlife are’?”

Dear Michael: Try “wildlife is” first, but anytime that sounds awful, it’s OK to say “wildlife are.” And there you have a simple answer that was anything but simple to find out.

If a word like “wildlife” is always plural, dictionaries will say so, with a notation like “plural noun” or “pl.n.” (To see exactly what format your dictionary uses, try looking up “cattle,” which is definitely plural.) Because dictionaries don’t give this notation for “wildlife,” you won’t be wrong if you treat it as singular: “wildlife is.”

But does “wildlife” have a plural? When a word has a plural and it’s something other than just the singular plus “s” or “es,” dictionaries will ordinarily tell you what it is. (To see the format your dictionary uses for this information, try looking up “moose,” whose plural is also “moose,” or “fauna,” whose plural may be either “faunas” or “faunae.”) Oddly, the major American dictionaries don’t say anything about the plural of “wildlife.” Does that mean there is no plural? Or that it’s “wildlifes”? Or that “wildlife” follows the pattern of “life,” from which it’s derived, and the plural is “wildlives”? There’s no way to tell.

I checked Google News -- Google’s online compilation of news stories from the past month. Neither “wildlifes” nor “wildlives” appeared at all. But Google News showed me 52 published examples of “wildlife are.” Most were not relevant -- for instance, “Unvaccinated pets exposed to wildlife are a public health risk.” But a few showed that, yes, “wildlife” is also used as a plural -- for instance, “That’s also the time that most wildlife are raising their young.” That’s a sentence where “wildlife is” would sound awful, and “wildlife are” sounds fine to me.

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

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