Plurale tantum

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A plurale tantum (Latin for "plural only"; plural form: pluralia tantum) is a noun that appears only in the plural form and does not have a singular variant for referring to a single object. These are used in English for objects that function as pairs or sets (spectacles, trousers, pants, scissors, clothes, electronics, bagpipes, genitals).

Many languages have pluralia tantum, such as the Latin word kalendae, the Russian word den'gi [деньги] ("money"), the Swedish word inälvor ("intestines"), or the Dutch word hersenen ("brain"). A bilingual example is the Latin word fasces which was brought into English; when referring to the symbol of authority, it is a plurale tantum noun in both languages.[1]

English usage[edit]

In English, some plurale tantum nouns in fact have a singular form, but one that is used only attributively. That is, phrases such as "trouser presses" and "scissor kick" contain the singular form, even though it is considered non-standard to say "a trouser" on its own. This accords with the strong preference for singular nouns in attributive positions in English; however, some words are used in the plural form even as attributive nouns (e.g. "clothes peg", "glasses case"). Singular forms of pluralia tantum such as "a pant" or "a trouser" may be encountered when the item being referred to is a product, for example, "The company was looking to market a new trouser to over-45s", where "trouser" means "type of trousers".

In English, a word may have definitions which are pluralia tantum. The noun 'glasses' (corrective lenses to improve eyesight) is plurale tantum. The word glass (a container for drinks) may be singular or plural. In most forms of English, quantifying a plurale tantum noun requires a measure word, for example "one pair of scissors" instead of "one scissors". Some words, such as "brain" and "intestine", can be used as either pluralia tantum or as count nouns.

Related terms[edit]

The term for a noun which appears only in the singular form is singulare tantum (plural: singularia tantum); for example, the English words "information", "dust", and "wealth". Singulare tantum is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as: "Gram. A word having only a singular form; esp. a non-count noun."[2]

In the English language, such words are almost always mass nouns, also known as uncountable nouns. Some uncountable nouns can be alternatively used as count nouns when meaning "a type of", in which case the plural means "more than one type of". For example, strength is uncountable in Strength is power, but can be used as a countable noun meaning type of strength as in My strengths are in physics and chemistry. Some words—especially proper nouns, such as the name of an individual—are nearly always in the singular form because only one example exists of what that noun means.

Usage in languages other than English[edit]

Pluralia tantum vary arbitrarily between languages. For example, Swedish en sax ("a pair of scissors") is not a plurale tantum, unlike the English equivalent (scissors).

In some other languages, rather than quantifying a plurale tantum noun with a measure word, special numeral forms are used in such cases. In Polish, for example, "one pair of eyeglasses" is expressed as either jedne okulary (one-plur. glasses-plur.) or jedna para okularów (one-sing. pair-sing. glasses-gen. plur.). For larger quantities, "collective numeral" forms are available: troje drzwi (three doors), pięcioro skrzypiec (five violins). Compare these to the ordinary numeral forms found in Polish: trzy filmy / pięć filmów (three films / five films)[3]

Russian деньги "money" originally had a singular деньга (denga), which meant a copper coin worth half a kopeck.

The Hebrew word Elohim, generally translated into English as "God", represents a Biblical plurale tantum.[4]


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "fasces". Online Etymology Dictionary.  "1590s, from Latin fasces 'bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting' (plural of fascis 'bundle' of wood, etc.)... Carried before a lictor, a superior Roman magistrate, as a symbol of power over life and limb: the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe-head execution by beheading." Retrieved August 2, 2015.
  2. ^ The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993 edition, p. 2871.
  3. ^ Swan, Oscar E. (2002). A Grammar of Contemporary Polish. Bloomington, IN: Slavica. pp. 200–201. ISBN 0-89357-296-9. 
  4. ^ Rabbinowicz, J.-M. (1873). "La Réligion Nationale des anciens Hébreux: Réponse a la Revue des deux-mondes" [The national religion of the ancient Hebrews: Reply to the Revue des deux mondes]. Vignaud Pamphlets: Judaism (in French). p. 112. Retrieved 2014-09-07. Dans plusieurs langues, les substantifs qui sont employés avec la forme du pluriel, quoiqu'ils n'indiquent qu'une chose unique, ont les adjectifs et les verbes au pluriel. [...] Ce plurale tantum exprime la même idée que le singulier [...]. il en est du même du substantif hebreu, Elohim; les adjectifs de ce mot sont ordinairement au pluriel ainsi que les verbes dont ce mot est le subjet; tandis que les prénoms personnels qui se rapportent a ce substantif sont au singulier. 

See also[edit]