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English nouns are inflected for grammatical number, meaning that if they are of the countable type, they generally have different forms for singular and plural. This article discusses the variety of ways in which English plural nouns are formed from the corresponding singular forms, as well as various issues concerning the usage of singulars and plurals in English. For plurals of pronouns, see English personal pronouns.
Where a singular noun ends in a sibilant sound—/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/—the plural is formed by adding /ɪz/ or /əz/ (in some transcription systems, this is abbreviated as /ᵻz/). The spelling adds -es, or -s if the singular already ends in -e:
|massage||massages||/məˈsɑːʒᵻz/ or /ˈmæsɑːʒᵻz/|
When the singular form ends in a voiceless consonant (other than a sibilant)—/p/, /t/, /k/, and sometimes /f/ and /θ/ (which in some plurals are replaced by the voiced consonants /v/ and /ð/ respectively, as discussed below) —the plural is formed by adding /s/. The spelling adds -s:
Thus, singular forms that end in a voiceless consonant (other than a sibilant) are pluralized with the voiceless consonant /s/, and singular forms that end in a voiced phoneme (including vowels and voiced consonants) or a sibilant are pluralized with the voiced consonant /z/. So, for all other words (i.e. words ending in vowels or voiced non-sibilants) the regular plural adds /z/, represented orthographically by -s:
Phonologically, these rules are sufficient to describe most English plurals. However, certain complications arise in the spelling of certain plurals, as described below.
Plurals of nouns in -o
With nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant, the plural in many cases is spelled by adding -es (pronounced /z/):
|volcano||volcanoes or volcanos|
However many nouns of foreign origin, including almost all Italian loanwords, add only -s:
|zero||zeros (or zeroes)|
|quarto (paper size)||quartos|
Plurals of nouns in -y
Nouns ending in a vocalic y (that is, used as a vowel) preceded by a consonant usually drop the y and add -ies (pronounced /iz/, or /aiz/ in words where the y is pronounced /ai/):
Words ending in quy also follow this pattern:
However, nouns of this type which are proper nouns (particularly names of people) form their plurals by simply adding -s: the two Kennedys, there are three Harrys in our office. With place names this rule is not always adhered to: Germanys and Germanies are both used, and Sicilies and Scillies are the standard plurals of Sicily and Scilly. Nor does the rule apply to words that are merely capitalized common nouns: P&O Ferries (from ferry).
Other exceptions include lay-bys and stand-bys.
Words ending in a y preceded by a vowel form their plurals by adding -s:
However the plural form (rarely used) of money is usually monies, although moneys is also found. Also, the plural of trolley can be either trolleys or trollies, although the former is more common.
Plurals of nouns in -i
Nouns written with -i usually have plurals in -is (for example: alibis, bikinis, Israelis), but some plurals in -ies are also found (for example: chillies, alkalies).
In Old and Middle English, voiceless fricatives /f/ and /θ/ mutated to voiced fricatives /v/ and /ð/ respectively before a voiced ending. In some words this voicing survives in the modern English plural. In the case of /f/ changing to /v/, the mutation is indicated in the orthography as well; also, a silent e is added in this case if the singular does not already end with -e:
In addition, there is one word where /s/ is voiced in the plural:
Many nouns ending in /f/ or /θ/ (including all words where /f/ is represented orthographically by gh or ph) nevertheless retain the voiceless consonant:
|moth||moths (voiced /mɒðz/ is rare but does occur in New England and Canada)|
Some can do either:
|roof||roofs (commonly voiced as /ɹuːvz/ to rhyme with hooves, but rooves is a rare archaic spelling)|
|turf||turfs/turves (latter rare)|
There are many other less regular ways of forming plurals, usually stemming from older forms of English or from foreign borrowings.
Nouns with identical singular and plural
Some nouns have identical singular and plural (zero inflection). Many of these are the names of animals:
- kakapo (and other Māori-derived words)
As a general rule, game or other animals are often referred to in the singular for the plural in a sporting context: "He shot six brace of pheasant", "Carruthers bagged a dozen tiger last year", whereas in another context such as zoology or tourism the regular plural would be used. Eric Partridge refers to these sporting terms as "snob plurals" and conjectures that they may have developed by analogy with the common English irregular plural animal words "deer", "sheep" and "trout". Similarly, nearly all kinds of fish have no separate plural form (though there are exceptions—such as rays, sharks or lampreys). As to the word fish itself, the plural is usually identical to the singular, although fishes is sometimes used, especially when meaning "species of fish". Fishes is also used in iconic contexts, such as the Bible story of the loaves and fishes, or the reference in The Godfather, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
Other nouns that have identical singular and plural forms include:
- aircraft; watercraft; spacecraft; hovercraft; ocean-going craft (But in the sense of a skill or art, the plural is regular, crafts.)
- the blues (referring to individual songs in the blues musical style: "play me a blues"; "he sang three blues and a calypso")
- cannon (sometimes cannons) ("Cannons" is more common in North America and Australia, while "cannon" as plural is more common in the United Kingdom.)
- chassis (Only the spelling is identical; the singular is pronounced /(t)ʃæsi/ while the plural is /(t)ʃæsiz/.)
- counsel (in the meaning of lawyer)
- head (referring, in the plural, to animals in a herd: "fifty head of cattle": cf brace above)
- iris (usually irises, but iris can be the plural for multiple plants; in medical contexts irides is used)
- series, species (and other words in -ies, from the Latin fifth declension) [The word specie refers only to money, coins, from the Latin ablative singular form in the phrase in specie. It has no plural form.]
- stone—as a unit of weight equal to 14 pounds (occasionally stones)
Many names for Native American peoples are not inflected in the plural:
Exceptions include Algonquins, Apaches, Aztecs, Chippewas, Hurons, Incas, Mohawks, Oneidas, and Seminoles.
English sometimes distinguishes between regular plural forms of demonyms/ethnonyms (e.g. "five Dutchmen", "several Irishmen"), and uncountable plurals used to refer to entire nationalities collectively (e.g. "the Dutch", "the Irish").
Certain other words borrowed from foreign languages such as Japanese and Māori are "correctly" not inflected in the plural, although many people are not aware of this rule; see § Irregular plurals from other languages below.
Plurals in -(e)n
The plurals of a few nouns are formed from the singular by adding -n or -en, stemming from the Old English weak declension. Only the following three are commonly found:
|ox||oxen||(particularly when referring to a team of draft (draught) animals, sometimes oxes in nonstandard American English)|
|child||children||(only possible plural; originated as a double plural, with -en added to Old English plural cildra/cildru, which also led to the archaic plural childer as in Childermas, occasionally still encountered in Ireland).|
|brother||brethren||(archaic as plural of brother meaning a male sibling, but often seen as plural of brother meaning a member of a religious congregation or fraternal organization; originated as a double plural, with -en added to Early Middle English brother)|
As noted, the word "children" comes from an earlier form "childer". There were formerly a few other words like this: eyre/eyren (eggs), lamber/lambren (lambs), and calver/calveren (calves).
The following -(e)n plurals are found in dialectal, rare, or archaic usage:
|cow||kine||(archaic/regional; actually earlier plural "kye" [cf. Scots "kye"—"cows"] plus -en suffix, forming a double plural)|
|eye||eyen||(rare, found in some regional dialects, used by Shakespeare)|
|house||housen||(rare/dialectal, used by Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook's Hill)|
|hose||hosen||(rare/archaic, used in King James Version of the Bible)|
|tree||treen||(archaic/obsolete, used by William Browne)|
|aurochs||aurochsen||(alternative plural, also aurochs)|
The word box, referring to a computer, is occasionally pluralized humorously to boxen in the hacker subculture[clarification needed]. In the same context, multiple VAX computers are sometimes called Vaxen particularly if operating as a cluster, but multiple Unix systems are usually Unices along the Latin model.
The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular (these are sometimes called mutated plurals):
|mouse||mice (computer mouse can also take the regular plural form mouses)|
This group consists of words that historically belong to the Old English consonant declension, see Germanic umlaut § I-mutation in Old English. There are many compounds of man and woman that form their plurals in the same way: postmen, policewomen, etc.
The plural of mongoose is mongooses. Mongeese is a back-formation by mistaken analogy to goose / geese and is often used in a jocular context. The form meese is sometimes also used humorously as the plural of moose—normally moose or mooses—or even of mouse.
Miscellaneous irregular plurals
Some words have irregular plurals that do not fit any of the types given here.
- person—people (also persons, in more formal contexts; people can also be a singular noun with plural peoples.)
- die—dice (in the context of gaming, where dice is also often used as the singular; and also in the semiconductor industry. Otherwise dies is used.)
- penny—pence (in the context of an amount of money in Britain). The 1 p or 1-cent coins are called pennies. Pence is abbreviated p (also in speech, as "pee"). For 10 pences see § Headless nouns below.
Irregular plurals from foreign languages
Irregular plurals from Latin and Greek
English has borrowed a great many words from Classical Latin and Classical Greek. Classical Latin has a very complex system of endings in which there are five categories or declensions of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns (some with sub-categories). Usually, in borrowing words from Latin, the endings of the nominative are used: nouns whose nominative singular ends in -a (first declension) have plurals in -ae (anima, animae); nouns whose nominative singular ends in -m (second declension neuter) have plurals in -a (stadium, stadia; datum, data). (For a full treatment, see Latin declensions.) Sometimes forms other than the nominative are seen: in partibus infidelibus ("in the lands of the heathens"), which is the plural dative (indirect object, approximately).
Classical Greek had a simpler system, but still more complicated than that of English. Note that most loan words from Greek in English are from Attic Greek (the Athenian Greek of Plato, Aristotle, and other "great" writers), not Demotic Greek, Koine (Biblical) Greek, or Modern Greek. This is because Attic Greek is what is taught in classes in Greek in Western Europe, and therefore was the Greek that the word borrowers knew.
The general trend with loanwords is toward what is called Anglicisation or naturalisation, that is, the re-formation of the word and its inflections as normal English words. Many nouns have settled on, or acquired a modern form from the original (usually Latin). Other nouns have become Anglicised, taking on the normal "s" ending. In some cases, both forms are still competing.
The choice of a form can often depend on context: for a scholar, the plural of appendix is appendices (following the original language); for, some physicians, the plural of appendix is appendixes. Likewise, a radio or radar engineer works with antennas, but an entomologist deals with antennae. The choice of form can also depend on the level of discourse: traditional Latin plurals are found more often in academic and scientific contexts, whereas in daily speech the Anglicised forms are more common. In the following table, the Latin plurals are listed, together with the Anglicised forms when these are more common.
Different paradigms of Latin pronunciation can lead to confusion as to the number or gender of the noun in question. As traditionally used in English, including scientific, medical, and legal contexts, Latin nouns retain the classical inflection with regard to spelling; however those inflections use an Anglicised pronunciation: the entomologist pronounces antennae as /ænˈtɛni/. This may cause confusion for those familiar with the Classical Latin pronunciation /ænˈtɛnaɪ/. The words alumni (masculine plural) and alumnae (feminine plural) are notorious in this regard, as alumni in Anglicised pronunciation sounds the same as alumnae in Italianate pronunciation.
Because many of these plurals do not end in -s, some of them have been reinterpreted as singular forms: particularly the words datum and medium (as in a "medium of communication"), where the original plurals data and media are now, in many contexts, used by some as singular mass nouns: "The media is biased"; "This data shows us that ..." (although a number of scientists, especially of British origin, still say "These data show us that ..."). See below for more information. Similarly, words such as criteria and phenomena are used as singular by some speakers, although this is still considered incorrect in standard usage (see below).
- Final a becomes -ae (also -æ), or just adds -s:
|encyclopaedia (or encyclopædia) / encyclopedia||encyclopaedias / encyclopedias (encyclopaediae and encyclopediae are rare)|
Scientific abbreviations for words of Latin origin ending in -a, such as SN for supernova, can form a plural by adding -e, as SNe for supernovae.
- Final ex or ix becomes -ices (pronounced /ᵻsiːz/), or just adds -es:
- Final is becomes es (pronounced /iːz/):
- except for words derived from Greek polis, which become poleis (pronounced /iːs/ or /iːz/)
(Some of these are Greek rather than Latin words, but the method of plural formation in English is the same.) Some people treat process as if it belonged to this class, pronouncing processes /ˈprɒsᵻsiːz/ instead of standard /ˈprɒsɛsᵻz/. Since the word comes from Latin processus, whose plural in the fourth declension is processūs with a long u, this pronunciation is by analogy, not etymology. Axes (/ˈæksiːz/), the plural of axis, is pronounced differently from axes (/ˈæksᵻz/), the plural of ax(e).
- Final ies remains unchanged:
Specie for a singular of species is considered nonstandard. It is standard meaning the form of money, where it derives from the Latin singular ablative in the phrase in specie.
- Final um becomes -a, or just adds -s:
|agendum (obsolete, not listed in most dictionaries)||agenda means a "list of items of business at a meeting" and has the plural agendas.|
|datum||data (Now usually treated as a singular mass noun in both informal and educated usage, but usage in scientific publications shows a strong American/British divide. American usage generally prefers to treat data as a singular in all contexts, including in serious and academic publishing. British usage now widely accepts treating data as singular in standard English, including educated everyday usage at least in non-scientific use. British scientific publishing usually still prefers treating data as a plural. Some British university style guides recommend using data for both the singular and the plural use and some recommend treating it only as a singular in connection with computers.)|
In engineering, drafting, surveying, and geodesy, and in weight and balance calculations for aircraft, a datum (plural datums or data) is a reference point, surface, or axis on an object or the Earth's surface against which measurements are made.
|forum||fora/forums (fora is rare and might only be used to refer to more than one original Roman forum.)|
|medium||media (in communication systems and digital computers. This is now often treated as a singular mass noun.); mediums (spiritualists, or items of medium size)|
|referendum||referendums is often taken to mean plebiscites, and referenda as the propositions voted on. It is often argued that referenda is incorrect because it is a Latin gerund, which did not have a plural form, while the "propositions voted on" is more like a gerundive, which could be pluralised.|
|spectrum||spectra (as in power spectrum in electrical engineering)|
|stadium||stadia/stadiums (the latter is far more common)|
- Final us becomes -i (second declension, [aɪ]) or -era or -ora (third declension), or just adds -es (especially for fourth declension words, where the Latin plural was similar to the singular):
|cactus||cactuses/cacti (in Arizona many people avoid either choice with cactus as both singular and plural.)|
|campus||campuses (The Latinate plural form campi is sometimes used, particularly with respect to colleges or universities; however, it is sometimes frowned upon. By contrast, the common plural form campuses is universally accepted.)|
|octopus||octopuses (note: octopi also occurs, although it is strictly speaking unfounded because it is not a Latin noun of the second declension, but rather a Latinized form of Greek ὀκτώπους [oktṓpous, "eight-foot"]. The theoretically correct form octopodes is rarely used.)|
|platypus||platypuses (same as octopus: platypi occurs but is etymologically incorrect, and platypodes, while technically correct, is even rarer than octopodes.)|
|prospectus||prospectuses (plural prospectus is rare although correct in Latin)|
|succubus||succubi (The word omnibus is similar in form but is originally dative plural, so cannot be pluralised to *omnibi: see The Motor Bus.)|
|virus||viruses (see Plural form of words ending in -us#Virus)|
- Final us remains unchanged in the plural (fourth declension—the plural has a long ū to differentiate it from the singular short ǔ):
|meatus||meatus (but usually meatuses)|
|status||status (but usually statuses)|
|apparatus||apparatus (but usually apparatuses)|
Colloquial usages based in a humorous fashion on the second declension include Elvii (better Latin would be Elvēs or Elvidēs) to refer to multiple Elvis impersonators and Loti, used by petrolheads to refer to Lotus automobiles in the plural.
Some Greek plurals are preserved in English (cf. Plurals of words of Greek origin):
- Final on becomes -a:
|criterion||criteria/criterions (the latter form is rare)|
|phenomenon||phenomena/phenomenons (the latter form is common, though sometimes proscribed)|
- Final as in one case changes to -antes:
|Atlas||Atlantes (statues of the Titan); but|
|atlas||atlases (map collections)|
- Final ma in nouns of Greek origin can become -mata, although -s is usually also acceptable, and in many cases more common.
Such -ata plurals also occur in Latin words borrowed from Greek, e.g. poemata. The a's are both short in both languages.
Irregular plurals from other languages
- Some nouns of French origin add an -x, which may be silent or pronounced /z/:
|beau||beaux or beaus|
|bureau||bureaux or bureaus|
|château||châteaux or châteaus|
|milieu||milieux or milieus|
|tableau||tableaux or tableaus|
See also § French compounds below.
- Italian nouns, notably technical terms in music and art, often retain the Italian plurals:
Foreign terms may take native plural forms, especially when the user is addressing an audience familiar with the language. In such cases, the conventionally formed English plural may sound awkward or be confusing.
- Nouns of Slavic origin add -a or -i according to native rules, or just -s:
|kniazhestvo||kniazhestva / kniazhestvos|
|kobzar||kobzari / kobzars|
|oblast||oblasti / oblasts|
- Nouns of Hebrew origin add -im or -ot (generally m/f) according to native rules, or just -s:
|cherub||cherubim / cherubs|
|seraph||seraphim / seraphs (The Hebrew singular is "saraph". "Seraph" is a back-formation from "seraphim". The form "seraphims" occurs in the King James Version.)|
|matzah||matzot / matzahs|
|kibbutz||kibbutzim / kibbutzes|
Ot is pronounced os (with unvoiced s) in the Ashkenazi dialect.
- Many nouns of Japanese origin have no plural form and do not change:
Other nouns such as kimonos, ninjas, futons, and tsunamis are more often seen with a regular English plural.
- In New Zealand English, nouns of Māori origin can either take an -s or have no separate plural form. Words more connected to Māori culture and used in that context tend to retain the same form, while names of flora and fauna may or may not take an -s, depending on context. Many regard omission as more correct:
|Māori[b 2]||Māori/(occasionally Māoris)|
- When referring to the bird, kiwi may or may not take an -s; when used as an informal term for a New Zealander, it always takes an -s.
- Māori, when referring to a person of that ethnicity, does not usually take an -s. Many speakers avoid the use of Māori as a noun, and instead use it only as an adjective.
- Some words borrowed from Inuktitut, spoken by the Inuit in Canada and Alaska, retain the original plurals. The word "Inuit" itself almost always keeps the plural form in the singular (in English, the native Inuktitut singular "Inuk", although recommended by the government of Canada, is in practice rarely used outside Inuit villages).
|Iqalummiuq||Iqalummiut ("inhabitant of Iqaluit")|
|Nunavimmiuq||Nunavimmiut ("inhabitant of Nunavik")|
|Nunavummiuq||Nunavummiut ("inhabitant of Nunavut")|
- Nouns from languages other than the above generally form plurals as if they were native English words:
|cwm||cwms||"Welsh valley"; the Welsh plural is cymoedd|
|igloo||igloos||the Inuktitut plural of ᐃᒡᓗ iglu is ᐃᒡᓗᐃᑦ igluit|
|kayak||kayaks||the Inuktitut plural of ᖃᔭᖅ qajaq is ᖃᔭᐃᑦ qajait|
|kindergarten||kindergartens||the German plural is Kindergärten|
|pizza||pizzas||the Italian plural is pizze|
|sauna||saunas||the Finnish plural is saunat|
|ninja||ninja/ninjas||Japanese does not have plural forms|
Plurals of compound nouns
|able seaman||able seamen|
|head banger||head bangers|
|lieutenant colonel||lieutenant colonels|
|yellow-dog contract||yellow-dog contracts|
Some compounds have one head with which they begin. These heads are also nouns and the head usually pluralizes, leaving the second, usually a post-positive adjective, term unchanged:
|attorney general||attorneys general|
|bill of attainder||bills of attainder|
|court martial||courts martial|
|director general||directors general|
|fee simple absolute||fees simple absolute|
|poet laureate||poets laureate|
|ship of the line||ships of the line|
|chief of staff||chiefs of staff|
|procurator fiscal (in Scotland)||procurators fiscal|
It is common in informal speech to pluralize the last word instead, like most English nouns, but in edited prose aimed at educated people, the forms given above are usually preferred.
If a compound can be thought to have two heads, both of them tend to be pluralized when the first head has an irregular plural form:
|woman doctor||women doctors (no longer in common use)|
Two-headed compounds in which the first head has a standard plural form, however, tend to pluralize only the final head:
In military usage, the term general, as part of an officer's title, is etymologically an adjective, but it has been adopted as a noun and thus a head, so compound titles employing it are pluralized at the end:
|brigadier general||brigadier generals|
|major general||major generals|
For compounds of three or more words that have a head (or a term functioning as a head) with an irregular plural form, only that term is pluralized:
|woman of the street||women of the street|
For many other compounds of three or more words with a head at the front—especially in cases where the compound is ad hoc or the head is metaphorical—it is generally regarded as acceptable to pluralize either the first major term or the last (if open when singular, such compounds tend to take hyphens when plural in the latter case):
|ham on rye||hams on rye/ham-on-ryes|
With a few extended compounds, both terms may be pluralized—again, with an alternative (which may be more prevalent, e.g. heads of state):
|head of state||heads of states/heads of state|
|son of a bitch||sons of bitches/sons-of-a-bitch|
With extended compounds constructed around o, only the last term is pluralized (or left unchanged if it is already plural):
See also the Headless nouns section below.
Many English compounds have been borrowed directly from French, and these generally follow a somewhat different set of rules. French-loaned compounds with a head at the beginning tend to pluralize both words, according to French practice:
|agent provocateur||agents provocateurs|
|coup d'état||coups d'état|
|cri du coeur||cris du coeur|
|entente cordiale||ententes cordiales|
|fait accompli||faits accomplis|
|idée fixe||idées fixes|
|tour de force||tours de force|
For compounds adopted directly from French where the head comes at the end, it is acceptable to pluralize either both words or only the last:
|beau geste||beaux gestes/beau gestes|
|belle époque||belles époques/belle époques|
|bon mot||bons mots/bon mots|
|bon vivant||bons vivants/bon vivants|
|bel[c 1] homme||beaux hommes|
- If the adjectives beau "beautiful/handsome", nouveau "new", or vieux "old" precede a masculine singular noun beginning with a vowel or a mute "h", they are changed to bel, nouvel, and vieil to help ease the pronunciation. The normal plural rule applies to plural nouns.
A distinctive case is the compound film noir. For this French-loaned artistic term, English-language texts variously use as the plural films noirs, films noir and, most prevalently, film noirs. The 11th edition of the standard Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2006) lists film noirs as the preferred style. Three primary bases may be identified for this:
- Unlike other compounds borrowed directly from French, film noir is used to refer primarily to English-language cultural artifacts; a typically English-style plural is thus unusually appropriate.
- Again, unlike other foreign-loaned compounds, film noir refers specifically to the products of popular culture; consequently, popular usage holds more orthographical authority than is usual.
- English has adopted noir as a stand-alone adjective in artistic contexts, leading it to serve as the lone head in a variety of compounds (e.g. psycho-noir, sci-fi noir).
Plurals of letters and abbreviations
The plural of individual letters is usually written with -'s: there are two h's in this sentence; mind your p's and q's; dot the i's and cross the t's.
Some people extend this use of the apostrophe to other cases, such as plurals of numbers written in figures (e.g. "1990's"), words used as terms (e.g. "his writing uses a lot of but's"). However others prefer to avoid this method (which can lead to confusion with the possessive -'s), and write 1990s, buts; this is the style recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style.
Likewise, acronyms and initialisms are normally pluralized simply by adding (lowercase) -s, as in MPs, although the apostrophe is sometimes seen. Use of the apostrophe is more common in those cases where the letters are followed by periods (B.A.'s), or where the last letter is S (as in PS's and CAS's, although PSs and CASs are also acceptable; the ending -es is also sometimes seen).
English (like Latin and certain other European languages) can form a plural of certain one-letter abbreviations by doubling the letter: p. ("page"), pp. ("pages"). Other examples include ll. ("lines"), ff. ("following lines/pages"), hh. ("hands", as a measure), PP. ("Popes"), SS. ("Saints"), ss. (or §§) ("sections"), vv. ("volumes"). Some multi-letter abbreviations can be treated the same way, by doubling the final letter: MS ("manuscript"), MSS ("manuscripts"); op. ("opus"), opp. ("opera" as plural of opus).
However, often the abbreviation used for the singular is used also as the abbreviation for the plural; this is normal for most units of measurement and currency. The SI unit symbols are officially not considered abbreviations and not pluralized, as in 10 m ("10 metres").
In The Language Instinct, linguist Steven Pinker discusses what he calls "headless words", typically bahuvrihi compounds, such as lowlife and flatfoot, in which life and foot are not heads semantically; that is, a lowlife is not a type of life, and a flatfoot is not a type of foot. When the common form of such a word is singular, it is treated as if it has a regular plural, even if the final constituent of the word is usually pluralized in an irregular fashion. Thus the plural of lowlife is lowlifes, not "lowlives", according to Pinker. Other proposed examples include:
|still life||still lifes|
Plurals without singulars
Some nouns have no singular form. Such a noun is called a plurale tantum. Examples include cattle, thanks, clothes (originally a plural of cloth).
A particular set of nouns, describing things having two parts, comprises the major group of pluralia tantum in modern English:
- glasses (a pair of spectacles), pants, panties, pantyhose, pliers, scissors, shorts, suspenders, tongs (metalworking & cooking), trousers, etc.
These words are interchangeable with a pair of scissors, a pair of trousers, and so forth. In the American fashion industry it is common to refer to a single pair of pants as a pant—though this is a back-formation, the English word (deriving from the French pantalon) was originally singular. In the same field, one half of a pair of scissors separated from the other half is, rather illogically, referred to as a half-scissor. Tweezers used to be part of this group, but tweezer has come into common usage since the second half of the 20th century.
Nouns describing things having two parts are expressed in the singular when used as adjectives. Other pluralia tantum remain unchanged as adjectives.
|a pair of spectacles||a spectacle grinder|
|a pair of trousers||a trouser press|
|clothes||a clothes line|
There are also some plural nouns whose singular forms exist, though they are much more rarely encountered than the plurals:
- In medical terminology, a phalanx is any bone of the finger or toe. A military phalanx is pluralized phalanxes.
Singulars without plurals
Mass nouns (or uncountable nouns) do not represent distinct objects, so the singular and plural semantics do not apply in the same way. Some examples:
- Abstract nouns
- deceit, information, cunning, and nouns derived from adjectives, such as honesty, wisdom, beauty, intelligence, poverty, stupidity, curiosity, and words ending with "-ness", such as goodness, freshness, laziness, and nouns which are homonyms of adjectives with a similar meaning, such as good, bad (can also use goodness and badness), hot, and cold.
- In the arts and sciences
- chemistry, geometry, surgery, the blues,[e 1] jazz, rock and roll, impressionism, surrealism. This includes those that look plural but function as grammatically singular in English: mathematics (and in British English the shortened form 'maths'), physics, mechanics, dynamics, statics, thermodynamics, aerodynamics, electronics, hydrodynamics, robotics, acoustics, optics, computer graphics, cryptography, ethics, linguistics, etc.; e.g., Mathematics is fun; Cryptography is the science of codes and ciphers; thermodynamics is the science of heat. Data often functions as a singular in terms such as "data collection" or "data processing".
- Chemical elements and other physical entities:
- aluminum (U.S.) / aluminium (U.K.), copper, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, equipment, furniture, traffic, air and water
- Referring to the musical style as a whole.
Some mass nouns can be pluralized, but the meaning in this case may change somewhat. For example, when I have two grains of sand, I do not have two sands; I have sand. There is less sand in your pile than in mine, not fewer sands. However, there could be the many "sands of Africa"—either many distinct stretches of sand, or distinct types of sand of interest to geologists or builders, or simply the allusive The Sands of Mars.
It is rare to pluralize furniture in this way (though it was formerly more common) and information is never pluralized.
There are several isotopes of oxygen, which might be referred to as different oxygens. In casual speech, oxygen might be used as shorthand for "an oxygen atom", but in this case, it is not a mass noun, so one can refer to "multiple oxygens in the same molecule".
One would interpret Bob's wisdoms as various pieces of Bob's wisdom (that is, don't run with scissors, defer to those with greater knowledge), deceits as a series of instances of deceitful behaviour (lied on income tax, dated my wife), and the different idlenesses of the worker as plural distinct manifestations of the mass concept of idleness (or as different types of idleness, "bone lazy" versus "no work to do").
The pair specie and species both come from a Latin word meaning "kind", but they do not form a singular-plural pair. In Latin, specie is the ablative singular form, while species is the nominative form, which happens to be the same in both singular and plural. In English, species behaves similarly—as a noun with identical singular and plural—while specie is treated as a mass noun, referring to money in the form of coins (the idea is of "[payment] in kind").
Singulars as plural and plurals as singular
Plural words becoming singular
Plural in form but singular in construction
Certain words which were originally plural in form have come to be used almost exclusively as singulars (usually uncountable); for example billiards, measles, news, mathematics, physics, etc. Some of these words, such as news, are strongly and consistently felt as singular by fluent speakers. These words are usually marked in dictionaries with the phrase "plural in form but singular in construction" (or similar wording). Others, such as aesthetics, are less strongly or consistently felt as singular; for the latter type, the dictionary phrase "plural in form but singular or plural in construction" recognizes variable usage.
Plural form became a singular form
Some words of foreign origin are much better known in their (foreign-morphology) plural form, and are often not even recognized by English speakers as having plural form; descriptively, in English morphology many of these simply are not in plural form, because English has naturalized the foreign plural as the English singular. Usage of the original singular may be considered pedantic, hypercorrective, or incorrect. In the examples below, the original plural is now commonly used as a singular, and in some cases a regular English plural (effectively a double plural) has been formed from it.
|Original singular||Original plural/
|datum[f 2]||data||data (mass noun)|
|graffito||graffiti||graffiti (mass noun)|
|panino||panini||paninis (currently gaining use)|
|spaghetto||spaghetti||spaghetti (mass noun)|
|talib||taliban||taliban (collective noun)|
|zucchino||zucchini (U.S. English)||zucchinis|
Magazine was derived from Arabic via French. It was originally plural, but in French and English it is always regarded as singular.
Other words whose plurals are sometimes used as singulars include:
- An agenda commonly is used to mean a list of agenda.
- A single piece of data is sometimes referred to as a data point. In engineering, drafting, surveying, and geodesy, and in weight and balance calculations for aircraft, a datum (plural datums or data) is a reference point, surface, or axis on an object or the Earth's surface against which measurements are made.
- Retained for the opus numbering system for systematical naming musical works by the same composer
Some words have unusually formed singulars and plurals, but develop "normal" singular-plural pairs by back-formation. For example, pease (modern peas) was in origin a singular with plural peasen. However, pease came to be analysed as plural by analogy, from which a new singular pea was formed; the spelling of pease was also altered accordingly, surviving only in the name of the dish pease porridge or pease pudding. Similarly, termites was the three-syllable plural of termes; this singular was lost, however, and the plural form reduced to two syllables. Syringe is a back-formation from syringes, itself the plural of syrinx, a musical instrument. Cherry is from Norman French cherise. Phases was once the plural of phasis, but the singular is now phase. The nonstandard, offensive, and now obsolete Chinee and Portugee singulars are back-formations from the standard Chinese and Portuguese.
Kudos is a singular Greek word meaning praise, but is often taken to be a plural. At present, however, kudo is considered an error, though the usage is becoming more common as kudos becomes better known. The name of the Greek sandwich style gyros is increasingly undergoing a similar transformation.
The term, from Latin, for the main upper arm flexor in the singular is the biceps muscle (from biceps brachii); however, many English speakers take it to be a plural and refer to the muscle of only one arm, by back-formation, as a bicep. The correct—although very seldom used—Latin plural is bicipites.
The word sastrugi (hard ridges on deep snow) is of Russian origin and its singular is sastruga; but the imagined Latin-type singular sastrugus has sometimes been used.
Geographical plurals used as singular
Geographical names may be treated as singular even if they are plural in form, if they are regarded as representing a single entity such as a country: The United States is a country in North America (similarly with the Netherlands, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Nations, etc.). However, if the sense is a group of geographical objects, such as islands or mountains, a plural-form name will be treated as plural: The Hebrides are a group of islands off the coast of Scotland.
Singulars with collective meaning treated as plural
Words such as army, company, crowd, family, fleet, government, majority, mess, number, pack, party and team may refer either to a single entity or the members of the set composing it. If the latter meaning is intended, the word (though singular in form) may be treated as if it were a plural, in that it may take a plural verb and be replaced with a plural pronoun: (in British English) the government are considering their position (alternatively the government is considering its position). See synesis.
Thus, as H. W. Fowler describes, in British English they are "treated as singular or plural at discretion"; Fowler notes that occasionally a "delicate distinction" is made possible by discretionary plurals: "The Cabinet is divided is better, because in the order of thought a whole must precede division; and The Cabinet are agreed is better, because it takes two or more to agree."
Plurals of numbers
The following rules apply to the plurals of numerical terms such as dozen, score, hundred, thousand, million, and similar:
- When modified by a number, the plural is not inflected, that is, has no -s added. Hence one hundred, two million, four score, etc. (The resulting quantitative expressions are treated as numbers, in that they can modify nouns directly: three dozen eggs, although of is used before pronouns or definite noun phrases: three dozen of them/of those eggs.)
- When not modified by a number, the plural takes -s as usual, and the resulting expression is not a number (it requires of if modifying a noun): I have hundreds, dozens of complaints, the thousands of people affected.
- When the modifier is a vaguer expression of number, either pattern may be followed: several hundred (people) or several hundreds (of people).
- When the word has a specific meaning rather than being a simple expression of quantity, it is pluralized as an ordinary noun: Last season he scored eight hundreds [=scores of at least 100 runs in cricket]. The same applies to other numbers: My phone number consists of three fives and four sixes.
- Note the expressions by the dozen etc. (singular); in threes [=in groups of three] etc. (plural); eight sevens are fifty-six etc.
Usage and number agreement
Nouns used attributively
Nouns used attributively to qualify other nouns are generally in the singular, even though for example, a dog catcher catches more than one dog, and a department store has more than one department. This is true even for some binary nouns where the singular form is not found in isolation, such as a trouser mangle or the scissor kick. This is also true where the attribute noun is itself qualified with a number, such as a twenty-dollar bill, a ten-foot pole or a two-man tent. The plural is used for pluralia tantum nouns: a glasses case is for eyeglasses, while a glass case is made of glass (but compare eyeglass case); also an arms race versus arm wrestling. The plural may be used to emphasise the plurality of the attribute, especially in British English but very rarely in American English: a careers advisor, a languages expert. The plural is also more common with irregular plurals for various attributions: women killers are women who kill, whereas woman killers are those who kill women.
The singular and plural forms of loanwords from other languages where countable nouns used attributively are, unlike English, plural and come at the end of the word are sometimes modified when entering English usage. For example, in Spanish, nouns composed of a verb and its plural object usually have the verb first and noun object last (e.g. the legendary monster chupacabras, literally "sucks-goats", or in a more natural English formation "goatsucker") and the plural form of the object noun is retained in both the singular and plural forms of the compound (i.e. singular el chupacabras, plural los chupacabras). However, when entering English, the final s of chupacabras was treated as a plural of the compound (i.e. the monster) rather than of the object of the verb (i.e. the goats), and so "chupacabra" without an s is the singular in English, even though in Spanish chupacabra could literally be construed as a creature that sucks only one single goat.
Teams and their members
In the names of sports teams, sometimes a noun will be given a regular plural in -s even though that noun in normal use has an irregular plural form (a particular case of headless nouns as described above). For example, there are teams called the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though the word marlin normally has its plural identical to the singular and the plural of leaf is leaves. (This does not always apply; for example, there is the Minnesota Lynx, not *Lynxes.) Some teams use a non-standard plural spelling in their names, such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
When a sport team's name is plural, the corresponding singular is often used to denote a member of that team; for example a player for the Cincinnati Reds may be referred to as a (Cincinnati) Red. This also applies to the St. Louis Blues ice hockey team, even though it is named after the song the "St. Louis Blues" and thus blues was originally a singular identical to its plural.
When a team's name is plural in form but cannot be singularized by removing an -s, as in Boston Red Sox, the plural is sometimes used as a singular (a player may be referred to as "a Red Sox"). Oftentimes, the singular "Red Sox" will be pronounced as if it were "Red Sock", even though the spelling suggests otherwise.
When a team's name is singular, as in Miami Heat and Colorado Avalanche, the same singular word may also sometimes be used to denote a player (a Heat, an Avalanche). When referring to more than one player, it is normal to use Heat players or Avalanche players (although in the latter case the team's plural-form nickname Avs is also available).
For the (especially British) treatment of teams as plural even if they have singular names, see § Singulars with collective meaning treated as plural above.
Adjectives as collective plurals
Certain adjectives can be used, uninflected, as plurals denoting people of the designated type. For example, unemployed and homeless can be used to mean "unemployed people" and "homeless people", as in There are two million unemployed. Such usage is common with the definite article, to denote people of a certain type generally: the unemployed, the homeless.
This is common with certain nationalities: the British, the Dutch, the English, the French, the Irish, the Spanish, the Welsh, and those where the adjective and noun singular and plural are identical anyway, including the Swiss and those in -ese (the Chinese etc.). In the case of most nationalities, however, the plural of the demonym noun is used for this purpose: (the) Americans, (the) Poles. Cases where the adjective formation is possible, but the noun provides a commonly used alternative, include the Scottish (or more commonly (the) Scots), the Danish (or (the) Danes), the Finnish (or (the) Finns), the Swedish (or (the) Swedes).
The noun is normally used anyway when referring to specific sets of people (five Frenchmen, a few Spaniards), although the adjective may be used especially in case of a group of mixed or unspecified sex, if the demonym nouns are gender-specific: there were five French (or French people) in the bar (if neither Frenchmen or Frenchwomen would be appropriate).
In common parlance, plural simply means "more than one". A quantity of one may sometimes be grammatically inflected as plural.
Decimals are always plural
Any quantity that includes decimal precision is plural. This includes 1 followed by any number of zeros. It is normal to say 1.0 gallons per flush, for instance, 0.6 units, or 3.3 children per couple, not *1.0 gallon, *0.6 unit, or *3.3 child per couple.
Fractions are themselves singular or plural depending on the numerator (e.g. one eighth vs two eighths), and whatever they apply to can be singular or plural (e.g., three-quarters of the apple(s)), depending on whether it refers to a fraction of a single item or many items.
Equivalent to zero is usually plural
Any zero quantity can be plural or singular, though plural is the default. So the following plurals are standard.
- We have no bananas.
- We have zero bananas.
- We don't have any bananas.
However, if it has already been established that one item was in question, one can use no to deny that such an item exists in the singular:
- "Can you pass me the banana on your desk?" "There's no banana on my desk."
The interrogative pronouns who and what generally take singular agreement, e.g.
- Who works there?
In some cases, a plural verb can be used when the answer is expected to be plural
- What have big ears and trunks?
When followed by a plural predicative complement, a plural verb must be used:
- What are the main reasons?
- *What is the main reasons?
Following which, a singular verb suggests a singular answer, and a plural verb suggests a plural answer:
- Which of these answers is correct? (single choice)
- Which of these answers are correct? (multiple choice)
When asking How many?, plural is standard (e.g. How many bananas? not *How many banana?), even if the expected answer is only one.
- In a Canadian accent, the mutation to a voiced consonant produces a change in the sound of the preceding diphthong (/aʊ/ or /aɪ/).
- The Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team is a special case; see Teams and their members § Notes below.
- For dwarf, the common form of the plural was dwarfs —as, for example, in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs— until J. R. R. Tolkien popularized dwarves; he intended the changed spelling to differentiate the "dwarf" fantasy race in his novels from the cuter and simpler beings common in fairy tales, but his usage has since spread. Multiple astronomical dwarf stars and multiple nonmythological short human beings, however, remain dwarfs.
- For staff (/stæf/ or /stɑːf/) in the sense of "a body of employees", the plural is always staff; otherwise, both staffs and staves (/steɪvz/) are acceptable, except in compounds, such as flagstaffs. Staves is rare in North America except in the sense of "magic rod", or the musical notation tool; stave of a barrel or cask is a back-formation from staves, which is its plural. (See the Plural to singular by back-formation section below.)
- English Irregular Plural Nouns Archived 30 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
- UNIT S4: YS OR IES? Archived 17 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
- Book titles include Mary Fulbrook, The Two Germanies. 1945-1990 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996); Henry Ashby Turner, The two Germanies since 1945 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987).
- "the definition of money". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- Emerson, Oliver Farrar (1921). The history of the English language. Macmillan. p. 299. OCLC 317104.
- Partridge, Eric, Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English, revised by Janet Whitcut (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 238–39.
- "Counsel". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
4a plural counsel (1) : a lawyer ...
- Dictionary.com entry for "brother".
- Raymond, Eric (1993). "How Jargon Works". The New Hacker's Dictionary. p. 12. Bibcode:1993nhsd.book.....R.
But note that 'Unixen' and 'Twenexen' are never used. It has been suggested that this is because '-ix' and '-ex' are sometimes Latin singular endings that attract a Latinate plural.
- "Sometimes scientists think of data as plural, as in These data do not support the conclusions. But more often scientists and researchers think of data as a singular mass entity like information, and most people now follow this in general usage." "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 November 2007. Retrieved 20 October 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "...of the 136 distinguished consultants on usage polled for the 1975 Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, 49% responded that they use "The data is..." in writing. Also, in casual speech, 65% use data as singular. Those who defend "The data is..." often point to the fact that agenda is also, strictly, a plural, but is nearly always regarded as a single list and takes a singular verb. You'll probably never hear anyone ask: "Are the agenda interesting?" http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF3/334.html
- "Summary of dictionary sources and scholarly usage". harvard.edu. Archived from the original on 15 May 2008. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1999
- "...in educated everyday usage as represented by the Guardian newspaper, it is nowadays most often used as a singular." "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Oxford Dictionaries - The World's Most Trusted Dictionary Provider". Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- UoN Style Book – Singular or plural – Media and Public Relations Office – The University of Nottingham Archived 26 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- "Open Learning - OpenLearn - Open University". openlearn.open.ac.uk. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- "What are the plurals of 'octopus', 'h... - Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries - English. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- TERMIUM®, Government of Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Translation Bureau. "Inuit, Inuk (Linguistic recommendation from the Translation Bureau)". www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
- "Plural problems". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
- Fowler, H. W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 633. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.
- Harper, Douglas. "Specie". Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- "The word agenda, for example, was originally plural (from agendum: 'something to be acted on') but is nowadays used only as a singular, and nobody in their right mind would insist that it should be used as a plural." "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 February 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Fowler, H. W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 403.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 505–506. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
|Look up Appendix:English irregular nouns in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|