The pluralis excellentiae is the name given by early grammarians of Hebrew, such as Wilhelm Gesenius, to a perceived anomaly in the grammatical number and syntax in Hebrew. In some cases it bears some similarity to the pluralis maiestatis or "royal plural". However the idea of excellence is not necessarily present:
Of (c): the pluralis excellentiae or maiestatis, as has been remarked above, is properly a variety of the abstract plural, since it sums up the several characteristics belonging to the idea, besides possessing the secondary sense of an intensification of the original idea. It is thus closely related to the plurals of amplification, treated under e, which are mostly found in poetry.— Gesenius' Grammar
Hebrew distinguishes grammatical number by endings in nouns, verbs and adjectives. A grammatical phenomenon occurs with a small number of Hebrew nouns, such as elohim 'great god' and behemoth 'giant beast', whereby a grammatically redundant plural ending (-im, usually masculine plural, or -oth, usually feminine plural) is attached to a noun, but the noun nevertheless continues to take singular verbs and adjectives.
Abstract plurals with feminine singular
Abstract plurals with -im endings such as in words for 'uprightness', 'blessedness', 'sweetness', 'youth', 'strength', etc. take feminine singular verbs and adjectives.
Behemoth—beasts or great beast
Sometimes the normal plural of a noun and the intensive plural are the same. For example behem, 'beast' singular, conjugates with the common feminine plural -oth, and behemoth + plural verb in, for example, the Genesis account of Noah's Ark indicates 'beasts' plural. But in the Book of Job behemoth + singular verb indicates 'giant beast', i.e. the sense of behemoth in English. Leviathan is also intensive: "You crushed the heads of Leviathan. You gave it as food for people, for[?] beasts".
Intensive plurals with masculine or feminine singular
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An adjective qualifying a noun in the plural of excellence is more often found in the singular than in the plural. Examples of the singular include
- Deuteronomy 5:23
- 1 Samuel 17:26, 36
- 2 Kings 19:4, 16 Elohim hay 'living God'.
- Psalm 7:10 "a just God"
- Isaiah 19:4 adonim qaseh 'a hard master'
- Isaiah 37:4, 17
- Jeremiah 10:10, 23:36
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Other correspondence of number in Hebrew
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Singular nouns may also take plural adjectives.
Related grammatical constructs
Distinct from the apparent "plural" of nouns with singular verbs is the "plural of deliberation", for "Let us make man in our own image".
- Gesenius 124 g-i, 132 h, 124 a-c, 135 p
- Gesenius ch.124
- Andrew Bruce Davidson, Introductory Hebrew Grammar: Hebrew Syntax 1902 p74 "On the other hand, plur. of inanimate objects that may be grouped under one conception, of the lower creatures, and abstract plurals are frequently construed with fem. sing, of pred."
- Bruce K. Waltke, Michael Patrick O'Connor; An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew syntax, p. 122.
- Paul Joüon, T. Muraoka; "7.4.3 Honorifics and the Like", A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, p. 541: "An adjective qualifying a noun in the plural of excellence or of majesty (§ 136 d) is more often found in the singular than in the plural. Singular: Is 19.4 ne? p D'ng 'a hard master', 2Kg 19.4,16 TJ DYfts 'living'
- Bruce K. Waltke, Michael Patrick O'Connor; An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 122, 1990: "D'VjVn 'a just God,' Ps 7:10); 16 when used of various gods, it takes plural agreement (OnriN wribx 'other gods,' Exod 20:3; cf. ... The agreement is mixed in, e.g. Josh 24:19, which has plural predicate adjectives and a singular verb."
- "which some modern grammarians, who possess more of the so-called philosophical than of the real knowledge of the Oriental languages, call a pluralis excellentiae."
- Glinert Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar Routledge
- Steven L. Bridge; Getting the Old Testament: What It Meant to Them, 2009: "Scholars advance two possibilities. One is that the plural is appropriate given the self-reflective tone of the passage. This grammatical construction is called a 'plural of deliberation.' Similar examples can be found in Gen 11:7–8, Isa 6:8 ...".