Behavior is a cumulative noun (like advice, garbage, machinery, tennis, tolerance), which refers to a singular entity that can be composed of any number of examples, from one to infinity. It cannot be pluralized. My behavior in general, or my behavior last year, or my behavior five minutes ago, encompasses all the different ways I behaved during a given period. Human behavior encompasses a lot more. The machinery in shoe factory down the street refers to a singular agglomeration of machines, just as does the machinery of the early industrial revolution.
It was bad enough when the gaucherie of pluralizing behavior was confined to academics and bureaucrats, who use it to show off, but now it has reached The New York Times and therefore has become an aspect of The Great Dumbing Down that we can no longer ignore.
This is the sentence that drove me over the edge (where complacency turns into dismay).
His behaviors predicted a short life.
Here is its context:
Mr. Aboud had been among the first Syrian rebels to organize bomb-making as the country slipped toward war in 2011, had lost both feet in a firing mishap with one of his workshops’ improvised rockets, and for nearly five years had a reputation of leading battles from the front. His behaviors predicted a short life.
C. J. Chivers and Karam Shoumali, “"Fighter’s Arc to ISIS Boss Ends in Death" – March 18
Correct: "his behavior predicted a short life."
As if to prove that whoever was responsible for this blunder truly suffers from dumbdown and hadn’t just nodded, it is repeated.
At first the brigade avoided some of the characteristic behaviors of extreme jihadist formations, including the use of suicide bombers.
Correct: "the brigade avoided some of the characteristic behavior of extreme jihadist formations" or, better yet, "the brigade avoided some characteristics of the behavior of extreme jihadist formations."
This is a news story, so it’s just as likely that the editor has dumbdown as that Chivers and Shoumalimarch do.
I was taught to call such words “cumulative” nouns. Wikipedia’s congeries of editors can’t decide whether to call them “mass” nouns, “uncountable” nouns or (least elegant of all) “non-count” nouns.
Wikipedia has an interesting way to think about it:
In English, mass nouns are characterized by the fact that they cannot be directly modified by a numeral without specifying a unit of measurement.
Adding an “s” to behavior directly modifies it by a numeral (>1), without specifying a unit of measurement. You can’t say seven behaviors, but you can say seven types of behavior (“types” is the unit of measurement).
Most nouns are quantifiable nouns. That is, they can be counted. My cumulative behavior might be composed of one or more quirks, conventions, habits, and limits. The shoe factory machinery might include one or more buffers, polishers, stretchers and sewing machines.
Some nouns can be both cumulative and quantified. “Rope” or “activity,” for example. You can say “he tied up his victims with rope” or “he tied up his victims with ropes.” The difference in meaning is obvious: rope in general vs. specific ropes. You can say “His activity predicted a short life” or “his activities predicted a short life.” Again there is a difference in meaning, although a more subtle one: his activity in general vs. certain specific activities of his.
I checked the Times’ archives. The first ten uses of “behaviors” in The New York Times occurred between 1853 and 1907. The latest ten uses of “behaviors” occurred in The New York Times between March 17 and April 3.
Here’s the first, from 1853, from an article with the intriguing title: “HAVANA.; Visitors--The Three Sailors--Lady Suffolk--Slaves Landed, &c.”
The intention of punishment is suspended, and Mr. GALIANO remains on good behaviors under bonds to keep the peace, and not to rouse the even temper of the supreme dignitary.
My guess is that this is a typo. “Good behavior” is a legal term that goes back to the 15th century.
Here is a passage from a 1901 piece, "COUNTRY LIFE AT LAKEWOOD: All the Requisites of an Ideal English Village, with Some Up-to-Date American Essentials," that presages the modern misuse of behaviors:
Moreover, hotel patrons are every day entertained by American music, American fashions, American behaviors, and American pastimes.
Note that “music,” another cumulative noun, is not pluralized; “fashion” is one of those nouns that can go either way; “pastime” is a quantifiable noun. (“His pastime predicted a short life,” would refer to one particular activity of his, not the general way he passed his time. “His pastimes predicted a short life” would refer to a number of specific activities, perhaps even all of them but, again, not the general way he passed his time.)
The tenth occurrence of “behaviors” in the archived New York Times was perpetrated by none other than John Burroughs. It is a long article which quotes Burroughs extensively from “an interview with the venerable naturalist at his home on the Hudson.” Burroughs is taking President Roosevelt’s side in a controversy between the President and a popular nature writer, William Joseph Long, who – according to both Roosevelt and Burroughs – unscientifically anthropomorphizes animal behavior. (If only we lived in a world with controversies such as this!)
From "JOHN BURROUGHS SUPPORTS THE PRESIDENT; Veteran Naturalist Analyses Dr. Long's Animal Stories and Declares Them Impossible -- Instances of Errors, Inaccuracies, Gullibility, and Absurdity":
We can’t account at all for the lives and behavior of the beasts without allowing for instinct. Long can't, by endowing them with reason, account for all the features of their lives and behaviors. I wonder if he knows anything whatever of the principles of and development.
Burroughs’ use of "behaviors" (second sentence) is doubly incorrect, since he already has modified it by a numeral (all) and a unit of measurement (feature). Again of course, this is a news story, so the mistake could be the reporter’s and/or the editor’s.
I can’t ignore a use of "behaviors" by the grandiloquent and colorful John Jay Chapman, in a 1923 Times essay, “Concerning Our Slovenly English”:
There exists undoubtedly a religion of good taste, of effective form, experienced and selfless expression, a religion of that elemental power which pervades and is part of all the fine arts and of all the lesser arts and crafts, manners, habits and behaviors – a sort of bloom that is given off by the perfection of workmanship.
As was Chapman’s wont, he gets carried away with his own words. One might say – although it is arguable – that an elemental power pervades “all the” fine and lesser arts and crafts. To include “all” manners, habits and behaviors among the things pervaded by an “elemental power,” which is the basis of “a religion of good taste,” is balderdash. A wonderful example of Victorian excess sputtering on into the Roaring Twenties.
Here are the ten most recent (as of yesterday) uses of "behaviors" in The New York Times. In most of these cases, simply dropping the final “s” from "behaviors" would be the editorial fix.
With startling candor and almost clinical attention to detail, she writes about the sort of behaviors, thoughts and experiences most of us don’t care to recall, let alone lay bare and examine for an audience.
Amanda Fortini, review of Kathryn Harrison’s True Crimes: A Family Album, April 3.
The least complicated fix would be “sorts of behavior, thoughts and experiences.”
“Physical activity and sedentary behavior are best considered as distinct behaviors,” said Russell Pate, a professor of exercise science at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Gretchen Reynolds, "Ask Well: Does Taking Fewer Than 5,000 Steps a Day Make You Sedentary?" April 1
Pate’s an academic, so maybe he’s allowed, but it should be “distinct kinds or sorts or – best – categories of behavior.”
Finnish researchers studied 311 children 12 to 18 years old, scoring their levels of stress according to a variety of components, including the family’s economic circumstances, the emotional environment in the home, whether parents engaged in healthy behaviors, stressful events (such as divorce, moves or death of a family member) and parental concerns about the child’s social adjustment.
Nicholas Bakalar, "Childhood Stress Is Linked to Hardening of the Arteries", March 31
For decades, autism meant kids with severe language, intellectual and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors.
AP, "No Change in How Common Autism Is in US Kids: About 1 in 68", March 31
“Impairment” also is a cumulative noun too: “social impairment and unusual, repetitious behavior.”
Acadia Pharmaceuticals rose after a Food and Drug Administration panel made a positive recommendation for Acadia’s drug Nuplazid, which is intended to treat psychotic delusions and behaviors that harm patients with Parkinson’s disease.
AP, "Shares Rise in a Wide-Ranging Rally", March 31
Make it “psychotic delusions and behavior that harms patients.”
"Sharks are really, really misunderstood ... People need to understand that sharks are not dangerous, there are only dangerous behaviors with sharks," Buyle said.
Reuters, "Sleep Tight and Don't Let the Sharks Bite at Paris Aquarium", March 29
A direct quote from a francophone, so let’s give it a pass. Correct: “there is only dangerous behavior.”
Gagliano, now at the University of Western Australia, concluded from the experiment that plants could “learn” long-lasting behaviors, sort of like memories.”
Joanna Klein, "Learning Curve; Plants Either Remember or Forget", March 29
An academic usage that would have to be rephrased in a more complicated way – so let’s give this one a pass too.
The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who have disabilities, but it does not ban discrimination based on behaviors like smoking, inactivity or eating fatty foods, or based on a person’s probability of having a disability in the future.
Editorial, "Protecting Employees’ Health Data", March 27
“What this point of view fails to acknowledge,” she writes, “are the ways in which the sexual behavior of teenagers actually is being changed and shaped by thoroughly new technology, smartphones and social media, not to mention the influence of online porn. What’s being avoided are the hard questions about whether these behaviors are in fact healthy or abusive or even legal, from the perspective of the age of consent.”
Anna North, review of American Girls, by Nancy Jo Sales, March 27.
Why not, “What’s being avoided are the hard questions about whether this behavior is in fact healthy or abusive or even legal”? This is a good example of the use of "behaviors" by an academic simply for the purpose of showing off.
They smoked tobacco and drank alcohol more often, though in some countries, gender differences in those behaviors were narrowing “as girls adopt behaviors typically regarded as masculine.”
Jonah Bromsich, "Study of Teenagers Asks: Who’s Happier, Boys or Girls?" – March 18.
This one’s a little tricky: “Gender differences in this behavior or in these sorts of behavior or in such behavior were narrowing.”
Finally, as a sort of postscript: Here is an interesting remark in the Wikipedia article on cumulative nouns, a. k. a. mass nouns.
Some mass nouns can be used in English in the plural to mean "more than one instance (or example) of a certain sort of entity"—for example, "Many cleaning agents today are technically not soaps, but detergents."
Wikipedia’s example is a starkly capitalistic one. It depends on the existence of different brands of soap and detergent.
"Many cleaning agents today are technically not soaps, but detergents" would be meaningless in the USSU (Union of Soviet Socialist Utopias) where there would be only one brand of soap and one brand of detergent (The People’s!).
Even if, in the USSU, there were different sorts of soap – The People’s! Lavender Scented Soap, The People’s! Hand Soap, The People’s! Pumice Soap, and different sorts of detergent, The People’s! Dish Detergent, The People’s! Laundry Detergent, one still would say, "Many cleaning agents (quantified noun) today are technically not soap (cumulative noun), but detergent (cumulative noun)." Only in a supermarket world, where the brands are more important than the products, does one think in terms of "soaps" and "detergents."