Sierra or Sierras? You Decide

A painting that looks like a photo, The Sierra Nevada from the Head of the Carson River, by Albert Bierstadt

I had to sympathize with the writer of this item on SFGate about the argument over whether to say “the Sierra” or “the Sierras” when referring to the mountain range between California and Nevada. (SFGate is the online media outlet of the San Francisco Chronicle.) The author, Freda Moon, is a travel journalist who wrote “a breezy little story” about traveling from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe in which she referred to the mountains as “the Sierras.”

Like you do. But a number of readers took her to task, and not all of them were polite about it.

It’s a question I have wondered about myself. When writing a book or a blog post about pioneers coming over the mountains into California, I have puzzled over how to refer to the mountains. Is it simply Sierra Nevada? Is calling them the Sierras okay? Since I often write for children, should I clarify by writing “the Sierra Nevada range” or “the Sierra Nevada mountains”? Even though that is redundant? Do kids know what a “range” is in this context? ‘Tis a puzzlement.

The word “sierra” in Spanish is already plural and means a range or chain of mountains. No need to add an “s”. Ms. Moon goes deep into the pros and cons. She consulted historians and grammarians. She asked Paul Brians, retired Professor of English at Washington State University and the author of “Common Errors in English Usage.” He concluded that “Some object to the familiar abbreviation ‘Sierras,’ but this form, like ‘Rockies’ and ‘Smokies’ is too well-established to be considered erroneous.”

My own conclusion is that if you are just chatting with your friend about going hiking in the Sierras, that’s fine. But if you are writing formally, and don’t want snarky comments from language purists, go with Sierra Nevada. But not just Sierra, because that might be mistaken for the Sierra Madre in Mexico or the Sierra de Cordoba in Argentina.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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