Why do some people write "1950ies", "1980ies", etc?
June 19, 2014 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I would write "1950s" or "1980s", and this is universal among native English speakers, so far as I am aware. In international contexts, however, I sometimes observe that people whose English spelling is otherwise flawless will consistently write "1950ies" or "1980ies", which reads to me like it has an extra syllable. Where does this convention come from, and what linguistic background makes it sound like a reasonable way to contract these numbers?

I have not noticed a specific language background among the people who write numbers this way, though I have a hunch that it might be more prevalent among German speakers. It seems to be a matter of convention rather than error, though I don't understand why there would be an alternate spelling for numbers written in an English context which is never used by native English speakers. Or is there some English dialect which writes numbers this way?

I notice this because the number always reads in my head like it has a stutter - "nine-teen-fif-ty-eys" etc. I'm sure this is not the intended effect. I have not noticed this pattern with written numbers which are not decades, only with numbers referring to spans of years.
posted by Mars Saxman to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
nineteen twenties nineteen eighties etc...

I think it's just a seeming logical carryover from writing the numbers out to letters.
posted by edgeways at 2:23 PM on June 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

What edgeways said. It's an obvious extrapolation if you're not used to the normal English convention.
posted by languagehat at 2:25 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I understand that it is obvious to some people in some context, because it keeps coming up; what I'm trying to understand is what their shared linguistic context is, and why that context makes this spelling seem reasonable to them.

I could understand this as an "obvious extrapolation" if someone were writing "198ies" or "195ies", but it's the "1980ies" that confuses me, because "80" is "eighty" and thus there is no need for an additional "ie" sound.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:35 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you spell the plural of eighty? EightIES.
posted by Emanuel at 3:42 PM on June 19, 2014

Best answer: "80s" in German is written "80er" (achtziger) so it makes sense to me that native German speakers might be more likely to use the "full" multi-letter plural ending when writing in English, as you guessed above.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it's the 'y' thing. Turning 'y' to plural usually involves dropping the 'y' and adding 'ie'. This is what we are taught, the 'ie' is silent BTW. See, try ---> tries for example.

Writing out 195ies would look something like nineteen-five-ies.

Honestly, I think why ESL folks might write it this way is they are trying to inpart more consistency to English then is good for them.
posted by edgeways at 4:17 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

ESL teacher here, never seen this from my students - in fact it's the first I've ever heard of this, so can't say where it comes from.
posted by Rash at 4:53 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't heard of this before, but I can understand why people would make this error. Of course you're right that "1950" = "nineteen fifty," so there's no need to add "ies." Similarly, it's illogical to write a sign that says: "No dog's allowed," since apostrophe S means possessive, not plural. But people do it wrong anyway because the correct form ("dogs") is similar to another form ("dog's") that's correct in many familiar contexts ("What's your dog's name?"). Another example, which is more obscure but also more directly relevant to your question: it's illogical to refer to a "dot.com" (referring to an internet-based company, as in "the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s"). That should be pronounced "dot dot com," for the same reason "Amazon.com" is pronounced "Amazon dot com." Yet people keep writing "dot.com" — not for any good reason, but because they've been confused by the resemblance to something familiar. We see a lot of plural nouns that end with "ies," like "oldies" and "hippies." So "1990ies" looks right ... to someone who isn't thinking very hard about it.
posted by John Cohen at 6:01 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never seen this, and my explanation doesn't work for German speakers, but some other languages say dates by stating each number individually, so "one-nine-five-oh", but if they know that dates in English end in "ies", they might be saying the numbers in their head their native language way, and then adding "ies" to anglicize it.
posted by lollusc at 6:20 PM on June 19, 2014

I have seen this too, and I don't have enough of a grounding in German to answer that part of the query. (In Spanish, something like "the '80s" would be written as "las 80" so I can only offer that this sort of abbreviation is idiosyncratic across languages and that ESL speakers may not have an analogue to fall back on and just guess.)

I suspect, like John Cohen, that it's just an unthinking reach that for whatever reason takes the same (erroneous) shape for different people. I'd file it under the same type of oddity that compels some people to use a lowercase L when they're otherwise writing in all caps; if you stop to think about it for even a second it looks bizarre, but many people don't bother to stop and consider it at all.
posted by psoas at 8:15 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You already got an explanation from mbrubeck, but I can confirm for the sceptics that this is very common from German speakers. I've wondered why myself and I think mbrubeck's answer makes the most sense.
posted by daisyk at 11:53 PM on June 19, 2014

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