Thursday Grammar: "Beavis and Butt-head" Do(es) Plurals

Thursday Grammar: “Beavis and Butt-head” Do(es) Plurals

In which Beavis and Butt-head teach us a valuable lesson about grammatical number and our relationship to the diagesis.

Beavis and Butthead think Grammar is Cool.

On the last Overthinking It Podcast, Fenzel and I got into a discussion about the return of Beavis & Butt-head. I had recently seen the show on MTV’s website, and I delivered the news that “Beavis & Butt-head is back!”

Fenzel asked whether I didn’t mean “Beavis & Butt-head are back,” since compound subjects joined by “and” take a plural verb.

We’d like to imagine our use of language is consistent (it isn’t, but we still like to imagine it), and so one of the ways to resolve a question is to consider similar questions. In this case, Pete’s question about the number of verbs is related to collective nouns, or what H. W. Fowler calls “nouns of multitude.” These include words like “firm,” “band,” and “party.”

The deciding factor is whether you are using the noun to refer to the collective as a single entity (singular) or as a group of single individuals (plural). In natural language, we would say “R.E.M. is breaking up” (you’re referring to a single band, so the verb is singular—all the more persuasive because “breaking up” posits a unity that is being disrupted)[1], but we would say “R.E.M. are pursuing solo projects” (admittedly tortured syntax, but the point is clear: you’re referring to a collection of individuals, so the verb is plural.)

It’s important that you’re consistent in your choice of singular and plural, especially if you’re going to use a pronoun later on to refer to the collective. For example: “The hunting party loses its way” (singular, because the party is traveling together and has one way) or “The hunting party lose their hats” (plural, because each individual has a hat and they are lost separately), but never “the hunting party loses their way” (singular verb, plural article: nonsense!).

Similarly with our adolescent cartoon friends: When I said “Beavis & Butt-head is back,” my sense was “The show Beavis & Butt-head is back.” The understood subject was singular, so I used a singular verb. If I were to say something like “Beavis & Butt-head are awful people,” I’d be talking about two individual characters, so the verb would be plural.

This determination was borne out by evidence. Beavis & Butt-head Do America, the movie title, refers to both individual characters and not to the show as a collective. Beavis and Butt-head, the separate entities, each do America separately.

That seemed to settle the grammatical issue, but I had the nagging suspicion that I couldn’t shake that there was something to overthink here. And, upon reflection, I think it’s this: The distinction that Fenzel and I ended up drawing has to do not just with grammatical number, but with the relationship of the speaker to the work of art she is describing.

What I’m about to suggest is limited to works of narrative art—it can be any sort of fiction in any medium, but it must be a story with characters. When we talk about these works, we are signalling our role as an audience member and talking about the work as a cultural artifact. “Beavis & Butt-head is back” implies that Beavis & Butt-head is a thing and that I am separate from that thing.

Contrast the statement, “Beavis and Butt-head are working at the Burger World.” I’m talking about the characters as individuals and using plural verbs, but there’s something else: I’m talking about them as though they are ontologically on par with me—as though I’ve stepped into the narrative world. And if I were to supply some context, as in “In the latest episode, Beavis and Butt-head watch music videos,” it makes the leap explicit. More on the prepositions in a minute.

First, let’s ring the changes: The Smurfs (the show) was adapted as a movie, but the smurfs (all the little blue pests themselves) were awful in it. Or, more generally, though The Smurfs smurfs smurfily, the smurfs smurf smurfily. And when you say the latter, you’ve entered their diagetic or imaginative world—and started speaking their language. (You know what’s a funny word? Smurf. Type it eight times in a paragraph and it’s bound to look wrong.)

Bill and Ted are in the phone booth in the circuits of time, but Bill and Ted is in the five dollar bin at Blockbuster. Harry and the Hendersons (a great example because the title contains both a conjunction and a proper noun in plural but we still use…) is a moving tribute to the humanity of yetis everywhere. The Kardashians is a terrible show, but the Kardashians are terrible people.

There are some corner cases, as when the title names a collective entity other than characters: Star Wars was ruined by the prequels, but the star wars were won by the clone army. Or at least one of them was. Covert Affairs is on tonight. So is Weeds. So is Wings, but it (singular pronoun) is in syndication.

Finally, consider a show that brought the characters of Beavis and Butt-head back but was called something else. You could say that Beavis & Butt-head is back as Adolescent Sublimity. But you’d say that Beavis and Butt-head are back in Adolescent Sublimity.

(Adolescent Sublimity is entirely made up. But if it were to be made, I know a podcast that would be more than happy to cover it.)

The prepositions do some of the work in this last example. “As” implies likeness between two things—when one thing can stand in as another, they must be similar in some respect. A TV show for a TV show, a narrative for a narrative. On the other hand, saying that characters are “in” a show implies an ontological difference. A narrative has a different quality of being than the characters it contains do, precisely because the show can do the containing and the characters have to be contained. (The Simpsons played with this difference in the episode where a 3D-animated Homer walked down a live-action city street.)

So when we watch or think about a TV show, there’s a three part structure: On one side there’s a character, on the other the audience, and then there’s the show which is the barrier between them. When you talk about the show and use a singular verb, you are staying firmly on your side of the fence. What I’m suggesting is that when you use the plural verb—”Beavis and Butt-head are“—you have somehow leaped the fence, and the structure of the language you use implies that the characters are independent entities (which they aren’t) and have equal ontological status to you (which they don’t).

I can foresee a number of objections, one being that this is a distinction without a meaningful difference. We talk about all kinds of things all the time—objects, ideas, suggestions, wishes, characters, works of art, abstract principles—and it doesn’t give anybody any trouble. Fair enough. But suppose I were the Parents Television Council or something, and I wanted to warn America: “Beavis and Butt-head are terrible role models.” This hypothetical concerned watchdog group would be ascribing a certain amount of agency to the characters—the ability to model behavior for children. Ironically, this is exactly the thing they were trying to minimize, but in the attempt, they managed to actually elevate the characters to entities on par with other (real) bad role models like Howard Stern or your older brother. The language itself is working against them.

This is an extremely fiddly point and probably not widely applicable outside of the limited circumstances I describe. But if you, like me, believe that one of the most important factors of intelligence is negotiating your path up and down levels of abstraction, it’s very important to be explicit about which level you stand on. The grammatical relationship elides the relationship of the speaker to a work’s diagesis; I’m not sure it’s always clear to us that we know what we’re talking about.

What do we talk about when we talk about fictional characters? Are the more occasions of slippage than the one I’m describing here? Are there narratives where you’d be more or less reluctant to talk about the characters independently? Think I’m overstating the case? Sound off in the comments!

  1. For what it’s worth, last time I checked, Rolling Stone house style does not observe my sensible distinction; they would say that R.E.M. are releasing an album, are going on tour, and are breaking up. Which just sounds funny to me. ↩

25 Comments on “Thursday Grammar: “Beavis and Butt-head” Do(es) Plurals”

  1. Tulse #

    In natural language, we would say “R.E.M. is breaking up”

    The British have a different view of what is “natural”, as they tend to refer to all collective nouns plurally, as in “The crowd are loving the performance”, “Manchester are a good team”, and “R.E.M. are splitting up”.


    • Timothy J Swann #

      It’s funny that you should mention Manchester being a good team, since Man City and Man U are both out of Europe. So things are going about as well for them as for the Greeks in 3-6 months’ time.


      • Chris #

        To be fair, either United or City is going to win the Premier League, and Man City can just get revenge on Napoli by buying Edison Cavani to replace Carlos Tevez.


    • Monzenn #

      Does the difference between the treatment of American and English pluralization reflect a difference in their cultures? Like maybe the Americans are able to become more detached, while the English have a harder time?


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      To me, the important thing here is to realize that when we (or a least I) say “natural language,” what we really mean is “unaffected language”—which is to say, “conventional language.” And that the conventions are not, strictly speaking, natural, no matter what Chomsky may say about them.


  2. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    “But if you, like me, believe that one of the most important factors of intelligence is negotiating your path up and down levels of abstraction, it’s very important to be explicit about which level you stand on.” YES PLEASE.

    I think it would be cool to do a corpus linguistics project comparing title character pluralizations in fictional works with title character pluralizations in nonfictional works. For example would we be more or less likely to hear “Kardashians is back” as in “the show entitled Keeping Up with the Kardashians is back” or “the Kardashians are back,” meaning “the Kardashians, the people, have returned to television this season” due to their ontological status as real people? This is kind of a bad example due to the credibility vacuum surrounding the representation of reality and nonfiction on this particular show, but I’m having trouble thinking of reality media — documentary, reality TV, nonfictional narratives — named after a plurality of characters, which may be because this kind of naming convention is comparatively rare with real life characters.


  3. Chris #

    Given that this is an article about the particulars of grammar, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this small typing error:

    “…you are saying firmly on your side of the fence.”


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      As Stokes is fond of pointing out, Overthinking It is a “safe space” for nitpicking! Corrected, with thanks.


  4. Shane #

    Harry was a Sasquatch, not a Yeti.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Ditto my comment above. But before I make the correction, let me ask: What is the plural of Sasquatch? Sasquatches? That just looks wrong somehow, don’t you think?


      • Qwil man #

        My knee-jerk reaction was to say “Sasquatch,” as in “The Sasquatch population is populated by dozens of Sasquatch.” However, I can’t find a source for that.


        • Stokes OTI Staff #

          According to The Great Oracle, “Sasquatch” is an anglicization of a Halkomelem word meaning “wild man.” And from what I can tell (again, based on a completely reliable source), Halkomelem forms plurals by an infix system that duplicates the first syllable of the word. Making the correct plural of Sasquatch Sassásquatch, obviously.


  5. Diana Barnes-Brown #

    Sasquatches. And yes, it looks awful. It’s not the correctness but the unusually high rate of consonants grouped without vowels – orthographically rare in English.


  6. atskooc #

    “This hypothetical concerned watchdog group would be ascribing a certain amount of agency to the characters—the ability to model behavior for children. Ironically, this is exactly the thing they were trying to minimize, but in the attempt, they managed to actually elevate the characters to entities on par with other (real) bad role models like Howard Stern or your older brother. The language itself is working against them.”

    i don’t quite follow. it would seem to me the ptc, in issuing it’s warning, is saying b&b have the ability to influence the behavior of children. the ptc is, hypothetically, well aware of this. what they are trying to say is “b&b are really good at modeling (and therein, influencing) bad behavior.” the PTC isn’t trying to minimize b&b’s ability to influence behavior (in order to do that, they’d have to go straight to mike judge), they are trying to minimize the number of children being influenced by making children aware of what they are seeing.

    in the eyes of children (you know, the ones more easily influenced than adults), b&b are just as real as howard stern, mostly because children don’t yet know what reality is.

    i don’t see how “the language is working against them.”


    • Qwil man #

      Because in saying the two “are” a bad influence, they’re not talking about the show, they’re talking about the characters. In doing so the assign fictional characters the ability to make decisions that make them poor role models, when in fact they have no agency, simply because they do not exist. This fictional counsel’s problem is with a television show, yet they feel the need to hold two fictional teenagers responsible for the actions of a team of writers, actors and animators.


      • Knaight #

        However, agency is entirely irrelevant when it comes to role models. Fundamentally, role models are not about people, or even what people do – they are about the presentations that exist of people. These presentations are influenced by the reality, yes, but as an emergent property that comes from the subject being relayed by the observer/teller to the audience, who then interprets it according to their own biases. That three part system is essentially always there, and the observer/teller and audience are usually different people even in the case of real role models known to the audience. People talk about each other, report each other’s actions, so on and so forth, and even incredibly close friends likely know of each other based on what others say to one about the other as much as direct observation.

        So, the comparison between Fictional Character and Real Person is an inherently unfair and deceptive one in regards to role models. The actual comparison is between a formed model of a Fictional Character based upon secondary reporting and biased interpretation, and between a formed model of a Real Person based upon secondary reporting and biased interpretation. Beavis, Howard Stern, your older brother, in practice all of these are models, and the models of these are comparatively real.

        This brings us to the nature of a fictional character, and in it the nature of art. I posit that art inherently connects to life, and involves in it a portrayal of reality. Said portrayal might be described in more poetic terms, such as “a grain of truth”, or “part of the human experience”, but it is functionally real. This functionally real thing is then presented, and this presentation is interpreted. Subject, Presenter, Audience – these are basically the same as Subject, Observer/Teller, Audience.

        In short, the real and the fictional are effectively equivalent in this regard. Treating them as such is not some failure of children’s intelligence, nor is it language working against self appointed moral guardians, it is human interaction with ideas. Not fictional characters, not real people, ideas.


        • fenzel OTI Staff #

          “I posit that art inherently connects to life, and involves in it a portrayal of reality”

          This is a REALLY tall order. The gap between the signifier and signified is pretty huge, not to mention the differences between how different people perceive “reality,” to the extent that it is something we can say things about meaningfully.

          I would suggest that, even if there is some “grain of truth” (whatever truth is, whatever grains are), there doesn’t seem to be a reason why it is there “inherently.” If it’s inherent, that seems to be that the definition of art is what’s doing the work for you, and maybe that definition could be adjusted.

          Could the relationship between art and reality be contingent rather than inherent? Why is it one or the other?

          “This functionally real thing is then presented, and this presentation is interpreted. Subject, Presenter, Audience – these are basically the same as Subject, Observer/Teller, Audience.”

          This isn’t really how art works, though. The audience does a lot of work in the creation of Beavis and Butt-head; it’s not all done by Mike Judge and company.

          The most basic element of this is how Mike Judge only creates still images in sequence, and the audience’s brains have to do the work of creating the illusions of continuous motion and object permanence. It’s not inherent to the work that “Beavis” is a singular entity. “Beavis” is a collection of information that the audience converts into a semi coherent whole.

          And that’s before you get into the feedback relationships between audiences and artists, as well as the role the audience plays in bringing about the experience of the art – such as the TV they buy, where they sit when they watch it, what people they bring — all of which changes the artistic experience of Beavis & Butt-head from one person to another.

          So there are limits on how much art can be said to be totally the act of the “observer/teller.”


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      Qwil Man has it—or at least gets my point, for whatever my point is worth.

      I really didn’t mean to takes us down a rathole about what can and what can’t be a role model, or what the nature and purpose of art is.

      The point, rather, is that natural language doesn’t establish its scope conditions, and we end up talking about things as thought they have a different ontological status than they actually have.


      • atskooc #

        in what other way should we talk about fictional characters, if not suggesting they’re “real?”


        • fenzel OTI Staff #

          Well, “should” is an awfully complicated question. This difference isn’t necessarily normative — why not try to understand it without the should before stepping into should territory.

          More like, “how can we talk about fictional characters without suggesting they are real?”

          It’s a trickier question than it seems, because we live in a highly fictionalized world in which it is very common to assign levels of reality to things that aren’t very precise.


      • Diana Barnes-Brown #

        Wrather, thanks for addressing the veering off, here. One thing that bears noting is that in order to make any of the above arguments on real/not real characters meaningfully, it would be necessary to actually analyze when people use the singular construction and when they use the plural construction, and map that to a beliefs inventory about the same works’ characters, independent of grammar. So theorizing is great and all, and in fact any one of the comments about real/fictional characters could form the “theoretical model” section of a legit study, but after a certain point someone needs to go out and get some data. (Just so you know I’m not merely being a windbag, applied linguistics was my grad school field and this is a fairly typical model for a qualitative research study that attempts to map grammatical choices onto sets of attitudes and beliefs.)


  7. Stokes OTI Staff #

    This is super fascinating and relevant to my interests. To reinforce your argument: the further separated we are from the characters in a text’s title (by time, culture, etc.) the less likely we are to treat them as separate grammatical entities. Like, saying “Beavis and Butthead are back” passes my “doesn’t sound ridiculous” test. But it would never occur to any of us to say “Gawain and the Green Knight are back.”


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Unless of course it’s accompanied by a vicious guitar riff and a picture of Channing Tatum and Zac Effron in full armor.


    • Knaight #

      I’d argue it has less to do with separation than with cultural awareness. Beavis and Butthead are the two main characters of a show that is at the very least fairly well known – possibly to the point where one could reasonably expect any given American adult to know who they are. Gawain and the Green Knight don’t fit that. You might expect anyone who self identifies as a nerd or geek to know about them, but that’s about it. Whereas King Arthur, and possibly Guinevere and Lancelot are known enough to be listed in a way similar to Beavis and Butthead, though they lack the titular work to actually test this hypothesis.


  8. Captain Grammar He's Our Hero #


    Groups are grammatically singular. Thank you and good night.


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