Runs Batted In and Surgeons General

people playing baseball
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What is a four-letter word for a “baseball sluggers stat”? According to the New York Times crossword of Monday, February 21, the answer is “RBIS.” This is the answer that I recorded on my puzzle, because it fit neatly with the surrounding clues, but it is not, in fact, correct and it irked me a little that the editors of the puzzle, so clever and fastidious as they often are, got this one wrong.

The abbreviatation R.B.I. stands for “runs batted in.” The term is plural, except for when only one run is involved (rare with how RBI is used) in which case it stands for “run batted in.” Either way, the abbreviation is RBI, not RBIs. Adding the superfluous s makes the abbreviation expand to runs batted ins, which sounds like gibberish.

What makes this all the more puzzling is that “runs batted in” is not a unique grammatical construct. We don’t ask, for instance, “How many surgeon generals have their been since 2000?” Instead, we ask, “how many surgeons general have their been since 2000?” The precedent is clear, but when it comes to RBI, it seems to be a murky gray area.

More and more I’ll hear baseball announce refer to “RBI” and instead “RBIs” but sometimes they slip. Sportwriters and sabermetricians usually get the term right.

Does it matter? Probably not much. It seems ridiculous only if you take time to think about it, which often times we don’t. It is akin to referring to the cash dispenser as the “ATM machine.” That final “machine” is redundant but we say it anyway. In every day conversation, we frequently bend the rules of grammar and this is one of those cases. I can accept that.

What I cannot accept is this as a correct response on a crossword. There is a precision to crossword puzzles that doesn’t always exist (or is even expected) in casual conversation. The clue given is “baseball sluggers stat.” The obvious ones that come to mind are things live AVG, OBP, OBS, batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base percentage plus slugging. But these contain only three letters and the answer requires four. Runs batted in is another slugger’s statistic, but in this case, the appropriate abbreviation is RBI, also three letters, not RBIs, which as I have stated, makes no sense if you expand it out.

Crosswords, as I have learned, have their own grammar to them. A clue that implies plural means a answer that will be plural; a clue in past tense means an answer in past tense. RBI is the correct way to state runs batted in. The final S is wrong in this case.

Ah, well, it was a Monday puzzle, the easiest of the week. Monday puzzles are useful because I can complete them fairly quickly, giving me a quick mental win first thing in the morning. Maybe becaues they are easier, they are more lax with the rules, thus allowing RBIs to slip through.

Written on February 21, 2022.

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