English plural

English plural
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In the English language, nouns are inflected for grammatical number —that is, singular or plural. This article discusses the variety of ways in which English plurals are formed for nouns. For the plurals of pronouns, see English personal pronouns.

Phonetic transcriptions provided in this article are for Received Pronunciation and General American.


Regular plurals

The plural morpheme in English is suffixed to the end of most nouns. Regular English plurals fall into three classes, depending upon the sound that ends the singular form:

Where a singular noun ends in a sibilant sound —/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/ or /dʒ/— the plural is formed by adding /ɨz/. The spelling adds -es, or -s if the singular already ends in -e:

kiss kisses /ˈkɪsɨz/
phase phases /ˈfeɪzɨz/
dish dishes /ˈdɪʃɨz/
massage massages /məˈsɑːʒɨz/ or /ˈmæsɑːʒɨz/
witch witches /ˈwɪtʃɨz/
judge judges /ˈdʒʌdʒɨz/

When the singular form ends in a voiceless consonant (other than a sibilant) —/p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ or /θ/— the plural is formed by adding /s/. The spelling adds -s. Examples:

lap laps /læps/
cat cats /kæts/
clock clocks /klɒks/
cuff cuffs /kʌfs/
death deaths /dɛθs/

For all other words (i.e. words ending in vowels or voiced non-sibilants) the regular plural adds /z/, represented orthographically by -s:

boy boys /bɔɪz/
girl girls /ɡɜrlz/
chair chairs /tʃɛərz/

Morphophonetically, these rules are sufficient to describe most English plurals. However, there are several complications introduced in spelling.

The -oes rule: most nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant also form their plurals by adding -es (pronounced /z/):

hero heroes
potato potatoes
volcano volcanoes or volcanos

The -ies rule: nouns ending in a y preceded by a consonant usually drop the y and add -ies (pronounced /iz/). This is taught to many North American and British students with the mnemonic: "Change the y to i and add es":

cherry cherries
lady ladies

However, proper nouns (particularly those for people or places) ending in a y preceded by a consonant form their plurals regularly:[1][2]

Germany Germanys (as in The two Germanys were unified in 1990; this rule is commonly not adhered to as several book titles show;[3][4] Sicilies and Scillies, rather than Sicilys and Scillys, are the standard plurals of Sicily and Scilly.)
Harry Harrys (as in There are three Harrys in our office)

The rule does not 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 regularly:

day days
monkey monkeys

(Money/Monies is an exception, but money can also form its plural regularly.[5])

Almost-regular plurals

Many nouns of foreign origin, including almost all Italian loanwords, are exceptions to the -oes rule:

canto cantos
homo homos
photo photos
zero zeros
piano pianos
portico porticos
pro pros
quarto (paper size) quartos
kimono kimonos

In Old and Middle English voiceless fricatives /f/, /θ/ mutated to voiced fricatives before a voiced ending.[6] 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:

bath baths /bɑːðz/, /bæðz/
mouth2 mouths /maʊðz/
calf calves /kɑːvz/, /kævz/
leaf1 leaves (see footnote), /liːvz/
knife2 knives /naɪvz/
life lives

In addition, there is one word where /s/ is voiced in the plural:[6]

house2 houses /haʊzɨz/

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)
proof proofs

Some can do either:

dwarf3 dwarfs/dwarves
hoof hoofs/hooves
roof roofs (commonly voiced as /ruːvz/ to rhyme with hooves, but rooves is a rare archaic spelling)
staff4 staffs/staves
turf turfs/turves (latter rare)

^ Note 1: The Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team is a special case. (See the collective nouns section below.)

^ Note 2: In a Canadian accent, the mutation to a voiced consonant produces a change in the sound of the preceding diphthong (/aʊ/ or /aɪ/).

^ Note 3: 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.

^ Note 4: 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.)

Irregular plurals

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 spell their singular and plural exactly alike; some linguists regard these as regular plurals. Many of these are the names of animals:


The plural deers is listed in some dictionaries.[7] 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. Similarly, nearly all kinds of fish have no separate plural form (though there are exceptions -- such as rays, sharks or lampreys). And the word "fish" itself is also troublesome, being generally used as a plural when in the context of food, but forming a regular plural otherwise (thus "three lots of fish and chips", "the industry landed 5,200 tonnes of fish in 1998" but "the order of fishes", "the miracle of the loaves and fishes", the phrase "sleep with the fishes"). The usage does vary, however, so that for example the phrase "five fish in an aquarium" might to another native user be "five fishes in an aquarium". Using the plural form fish could imply many individual fish(es) of the same species while fishes could imply many individual fish(es) of differing species.

Other nouns that have identical singular and plural forms include:

aircraft; watercraft; spacecraft; hovercraft; ocean-going craft
information (always used with singular verbs)
the blues4
cannon (sometimes cannons)
stone (occasionally stones)6

^ Note 4: Referring to individual songs in the blues musical style: "play me a blues"; "he sang three blues and a calypso"

^ Note 5: Referring, in the plural, to animals in a herd: "fifty head of cattle"

^ Note 6: As a unit of weight equal to 14 pounds

Irregular -(e)n plurals

The plural of a few nouns can also be formed from the singular by adding -n or -en, stemming from the Old English weak declension:

ox oxen (particularly when referring to a team of draft animals, sometimes oxes in nonstandard American English)
child children (actually earlier plural "cildra/cildru" plus -en suffix, forming a double plural)
brother brethren (archaic plural of brother; earlier "brether" plus -en suffix, forming a double plural. Now used in fraternal orders.)
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)
shoe shoon (rare/dialectal)
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)

The word box, referring to a computer, is pluralized semi-humorously to boxen in the Leet dialect. Multiple VAX computers, likewise, are sometimes called Vaxen particularly if operating as a cluster, but multiple Unix systems are usually Unices along the Latin model.[8]

The word sistren, referring to Christian sisters [modeled on brethren], is also semi-humorously pluralized.[citation needed]

Ablaut plurals

The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular, in a process called ablaut (these are sometimes called mutated plurals):

foot feet
goose geese
louse lice
man men
mouse mice
tooth teeth
woman women

This group consists of words that historically belong to the Old English consonantal declension, see Germanic umlaut#I-mutation in Old English.

Mouse is sometimes pluralized mouses in discussions of the computer mouse; however, mice is just as common.

Mongoose has the plural mongooses, or less commonly mongeese by analogy to geese.

Irregular plurals from Latin and Greek

English has borrowed a great many words from Latin and Classical Greek. The general trend with loanwords is toward what is called Anglicization or naturalization, that is, the re-formation of the word and its inflections as normal English words. Many nouns (particularly ones from Latin) have retained their original plurals for some time after they are introduced. Other nouns have become Anglicized, 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 linguist, the plural of appendix is appendices (following the original language); for physicians, however, 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 Anglicized forms are more common. In the following table, the Latin plurals are listed, together with the Anglicized forms when these are more common.

  • Final a becomes -ae (also ), or just adds -s:
alumna alumnae
formula formulae/formulas
encyclopaedia (or encyclopædia) / encyclopedia encyclopaedias / encyclopedias (encyclopaediae and encyclopediae are rare)
  • Final ex or ix becomes -ices (pronounced /ɨsiːz/), or just adds -es:
index indices /ˈɪndɨsiːz/ or indexes
matrix matrices /ˈmeɪtrɨsiːz/
vertex vertices /ˈvɜrtɨsiːz/

Some people treat process as if it belonged to this class, pronouncing processes /ˈprɒsɨsiːz/ instead of standard /ˈprɒsɛsɨz/. 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.

  • Final is becomes es (pronounced /iːz/):
axis axes /ˈæksiːz/
crisis crises /ˈkraɪsiːz/
testis testes /ˈtɛstiːz/

Axes, the plural of axis, is pronounced differently[clarification needed] from axes (/ˈæksɨz/), the plural of ax(e).

  • Final ies remains unchanged:
series series
species species
  • Final on becomes -a:
automaton automata
criterion criteria
phenomenon phenomena (more below)
polyhedron polyhedra
  • Final um becomes -a, or just adds -s:
addendum addenda
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.[9][10][11] British usage now widely accepts treating data as singular in standard English,[12] including educated everyday usage[13] at least in non-scientific use.[14] British scientific publishing usually still prefers treating data as a plural.[15] Some British university style guides recommend using data for both the singular and the plural use[16] and some recommend treating it only as a singular in connection with computers.[17])
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.
spectrum spectra (as in power spectrum in electrical engineering
forum fora/forums
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)
corrigendum corrigenda
memorandum memoranda/memorandums
millennium millennia
  • Final us becomes -i (second declension, [aɪ]) or -era or -ora (third declension), or just adds -es (especially in fourth declension, where it would otherwise be the same as the singular):
alumnus alumni
corpus corpora
census censuses
focus foci
genus genera
prospectus prospectuses (plural prospectus is rare although technically correct)
radius radii
syllabus syllabi/syllabuses (in fact the Latin plural is syllabūs)
viscus viscera
virus viruses/virii ( see Plural form of words ending in -us#Virus )
cactus cactuses/cacti (in Arizona many people avoid either choice with cactus as both singular and plural.)
fungus fungi
hippopotamus hippopotamuses/hippopotami
octopus octopuses (note: octopi also occurs, although it is strictly speaking unfounded,[18] because it is not a Latin noun of the second declension, but rather a Latinized form of Greek ὀκτώ-πους, 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)
terminus termini/terminuses
uterus uteri/uteruses
  • 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
status status

Colloquial usages based in a humorous fashion on the second declension include Elvii to refer to multiple Elvis impersonators and Loti, used by petrolheads to refer to Lotus automobiles in the plural.

  • Final as in one case of a noun of Greek origin changes to -antes:
Atlas Atlantes (statues of the hero); but
atlas atlases (map collections)
  • Final ma in nouns of Greek origin can add -ta, although -s is usually also acceptable, and in many cases more common.
stigma stigmata/stigmas
stoma stomata/stomas
schema schemata/schemas
dogma dogmata/dogmas
lemma lemmata/lemmas
anathema anathemata/anathemas

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 bureaus or bureaux
château châteaux or châteaus
tableau tableaux or tableaus

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
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:
benshi benshi
otaku otaku
samurai samurai

Other nouns such as kimonos, ninjas, futons, and tsunamis are more often seen with a regular English plural. However, there are nouns such as "mawashi" that are seen with an irregular plural: mawashia.

  • 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:
kiwi7 kiwi/kiwis
kowhai kowhai/kowhais
Māori8 Māori/(occasionally Māoris)
marae marae
tui tuis/tui
waka waka

^ Note 7: 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.

^ Note 8: 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.

Inuk Inuit
inukshuk inukshuit
  • Nouns from languages other than the above generally form plurals as if they were native English words:
canoe canoes
cwm cwms (Welsh valley)
igloo igloos
kangaroo kangaroos
kayak kayaks
kindergarten kindergartens
pizza pizzas
sauna saunas
ninja ninjas

Words better known in the plural

Some words of foreign origin are much better known in the plural; usage of the original singular may be considered pedantic or actually incorrect or worse[19] by some speakers. In common usage, the original plural is considered to be the singular form. In many cases, back-formation has produced a regularized plural.

Original singular Original plural/
common singular
Common plural
agendum agenda9 agendas
alga algae algae
bacterium bacteria bacteria
biscotto biscotti biscotti
candelabrum candelabra candelabras
datum10 data data (mass noun)
graffito graffiti graffiti (mass noun)
insigne insignia insignias
opus opera operas
panino panini paninis (currently gaining use)
paparazzo paparazzi paparazzi
spaghetto spaghetti spaghetti

^ Note 9: An agenda commonly is used to mean a list of agendum.

^ Note 10: 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.

Some plural nouns are used as such —invariably being accompanied by a plural verb form— while their singular forms are rarely encountered:

nuptial nuptials
phalanx11 phalanges
tiding tidings
victual victuals
viscus viscera

^ Note 11: In medical terminology, a phalanx is any bone of the finger or toe. A military phalanx is pluralized phalanxes.

A related phenomenon is the confusion of a foreign plural for its singular form:

criterion criteria
phenomenon phenomena
consortium consortia
symposium symposia

Magazine was derived from Arabic via French. It was originally plural, but in French and English, it is always regarded as singular.

Plurals of numbers

English, like some other languages, treats large numerals as nouns (cf. "there were ten soldiers" and "there were a hundred soldiers"). Thus, dozens is preferred to tens, while hundreds and thousands are also completely acceptable.

Plurals of numbers differ according to how they are used. The following rules apply to dozen, score, hundred, thousand, million, and similar terms:

  • When modified by a number, the plural is not inflected, that is, has no -s added. Hence one hundred, two hundred, etc. For vaguer large numbers, one may indifferently say several hundred or several hundreds.
  • When used alone, or followed by a prepositional phrase, the plural is inflected: dozens of complaints, scores of people. However, either complaints by the dozen or complaints by the dozens is acceptable (although differing in meaning).
  • The preposition of is used when speaking of nonspecific items identified by pronouns: two hundred of these, three dozen of those. The of is not used for a number of specific items: three hundred oscilloscopes. However, if the pronoun is included with the specific item, the of is used: five million of those dollar bills.

A sagan of any kind of items is at least four billion, as in billions and billions. Hence, "about a sagan of micrometeorites." [20][21]

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.

Defective nouns

Some nouns have no singular form. Such a noun is called a plurale tantum (see also Words better known in the plural above):

cattle, billiards, clothes, measles, news, thanks

Some of these do have singular adjective forms, such as billiard ball. In addition, some are treated as singular in certain sentences, e.g., "billiards is a game played on a table with billiard balls and a cue", "measles is an infectious disease". Thanks is usually treated as a plural. Although "cow" is sometimes used in colloquial English for cattle, the term is age and gender specific.

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 only since the second half of the twentieth century.

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,12 jazz, rock and roll, impressionism, surrealism. This includes those that look plural but function as grammatically singular in English: mathematics, 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; theromodynamics is the science of heat.
  • Chemical elements and other physical entities:
aluminum, copper, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, equipment, furniture, traffic, species, earth, air, fire, and water

^ Note 12: 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 grain(s) of sand, I do not have two sands; I have sand. There is more sand in your pile than in mine, not more 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. Nor is information ever pluralized.

There is only one class of atoms called oxygen, but there are several isotopes of oxygen, which might be referred to as different oxygens. In casual speech, oxygen might be used as shorthand for "oxygen atoms", but in this case, it is not a mass noun, so it is entirely sensible to 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 behavior (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").

Specie versus species make a fascinating case. Both words 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").[22]

Plurals of compound nouns

The majority of English compound nouns have one basic term, or head, with which they end, and are pluralized in typical fashion:

able seaman able seamen
head banger head bangers
yellow-dog contract yellow-dog contracts

A compound that has one head, with which it begins, usually pluralizes its head:

attorney general attorneys general
bill of attainder bills of attainder
court martial courts martial
director general directors general
fee simple absolute fees simple absolute
governor-general governors-general
passerby passersby
ship of the line ships of the line
son-in-law sons-in-law
minister-president ministers-president
knight-errant knights-errant
procurator fiscal (in Scotland) procurators fiscal

It is common in informal speech to instead pluralize the last word in the manner typical of most English nouns, but in edited prose, the forms given above are 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:

man-child men-children
manservant menservants
woman doctor women doctors

Two-headed compounds in which the first head has a standard plural form, however, tend to pluralize only the final head:

city-state city-states
nurse-practitioner nurse-practitioners
scholar-poet scholar-poets

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:

man-about-town men-about-town
man-of-war men-of-war
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 and/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
jack-in-the-box jacks-in-the-box/jack-in-the-boxes
jack-in-the-pulpit jacks-in-the-pulpit/jack-in-the-pulpits

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):

cat-o'-nine-tails cat-o'-nine-tails
jack-o'-lantern jack-o'-lanterns
will-o'-the-wisp will-o'-the-wisps

Compounds from the French

Many English compounds have been borrowed directly from the 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
entente cordiale ententes cordiales
fait accompli faits accomplis
idée fixe idées fixes

For compounds adopted directly from the French where the head comes at the end, it is generally regarded as acceptable either to pluralize 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
bel13 homme beaux hommes

^ Note 13: 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.

French-loaned compounds longer than two words tend to follow the rules of the original language, which usually involves pluralizing only the head at the beginning:

aide-de-camp aides-de-camp
cri de coeur cris de coeur
coup d'état coups d'état
tour de force tours de force


tête-à-tête tête-à-têtes

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:

  1. Unlike other compounds borrowed directly from the French, film noir is used to refer primarily to English-language cultural artifacts; a typically English-style plural is thus unusually appropriate.
  2. 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.
  3. English has adopted noir as a stand-alone noun in artistic contexts, leading it to serve as the lone head in a variety of compounds (e.g., psycho-noir, sci-fi noir).

See also the headless nouns section below.

Plurals (and singulars) of headless nouns

In The Language Instinct, linguist Steven Pinker discusses what he calls "headless words", typically bahuvrihi compounds, like lowlife and Red Sox, in which life and sox are not heads semantically; that is, a lowlife is not a type of life, nor are Red Sox a group of similarly colored socks. 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 a nonregular fashion. Thus, more than one lowlife are lowlifes, not "lowlives", according to Pinker. A related process can be observed with the compound maple leaf, pluralized in its common-noun form as maple leaves; when it is adopted as the name of an ice-hockey team, its plural becomes Maple Leafs. Other proposed examples include:

flatfoot flatfoots
sabertooth sabertooths
still life still lifes
tenderfoot tenderfoots

An exception is Blackfoot, of which the plural can be Blackfeet, though that form of the name is officially rejected by the Blackfoot First Nations of Canada.

Where words have taken on completely new meanings, irregular plurals may become regularized. Antennas is the accepted plural of antenna when it refers to electromagnetic equipment, in contrast to antennae for arthropods' and insects' feelers. The computer mouse is sometimes considered headless and pluralized as mouses, but also often as mice; in contrast to the compound headless words just discussed, there is a considerably stronger metaphorical relationship in this case, with many computer pointing devices resembling rodents with tails.

In other cases, the common form of a headless word is a nonregular plural; when such a word lacks a terminal s, it is treated as defective, thus making the singular version of the word identical: an individual member of the Boston baseball team is a Red Sox, just as all twenty-five are. One Chicago White Sox is a White Sox (questionable).

Related collective nouns

Sports team names like those discussed above —as well as more grammatically ordinary names such as Reds, Knicks, and Canadiens, and straightforward compound names such as Blue Jays — form a particular set of collective nouns. Closely related to the class of essentially plural headless nouns typified by Red Sox are the growing number of orthographically singular sports team names that may be classified as examples of a special type of collective noun — one that (a) has identical terms for both the collective and an individual thereof (as with the essentially plural headless noun) but (b) is not used as a counting noun beyond the singular. Two examples include the name of the NBA team of Miami, Florida — the Miami Heat — and the name of the Colorado NHL team —the Colorado Avalanche. While heat is a mass noun, whereas avalanche is a normal counting noun, in the context of a team name, both words operate as this special type of collective noun. Just as with the Red Sox or the White Sox, any one of the twelve current members of Miami's pro basketball squad is a Heat (questionable). Similarly, any individual member of the Colorado Avalanche is an Avalanche. However, where one may say something like "two Red Sox struck out" or "four White Sox doubled consequitively", the equivalent term is invariably used as an adjective when referring to multiple players of one of the teams named in this increasingly popular way: "two Heat players fought" or "four Avalanche players scored" (The followers of the Avalanche have a little more flexibility available to them, with "Avs" as the team's unofficial, but widely used nickname). Other examples include:

Tampa Bay Lightning Indiana Fever
Minnesota Wild New York Liberty
NBA Minnesota Lynx
Utah Jazz Phoenix Mercury
Orlando Magic Detroit Shock
Miami Heat Chicago Sky
MLS Charlotte Sting
Columbus Crew Seattle Storm
Houston Dynamo Connecticut Sun
Chicago Fire
Los Angeles Galaxy
New England Revolution
D.C. United

In not every case above is it certain that the name is ever used in its noun form to refer to anything but the collective — i.e., not even to an individual player. In other cases, it is possible that the name is sometimes used in its noun form (with or without a terminal s appended) to refer to multiple players, short of the whole collective. Note that in the above list, there is a case of an irregular plural in the "Minnesota Lynx", since the plural of "lynx" is "lynx". For example, "The scout spotted 20 lynx living in the neighborhood of the Great Bear Lake."

An exceptional case is that of the St. Louis Blues ice hockey team. The club is named after the song the "St. Louis Blues", which makes the team name Blues an irregularly pluralized word to begin with —one whose plural is identical to its singular. By this reckoning, then, an individual team member would also be a "Blues". However, because the name is spelled like a regular plural, its use as a collective noun leads to a process of back-formation, with the result that a single player on the team is known as a "Blue". This team's name's distinctive orthographical nature further allows it to be used freely as a counting noun, so that one may speak of, for instance, "two Blues in the penalty box".

Pinker discussed a case that could be construed as opposite, that of the Florida Marlins baseball team. Describing how the issue was raised by the talk show host David Letterman, Pinker asked, Why is the name the Marlins "given that those fish are referred to in the plural as marlin?" An analogous question could be asked about the Maple Leafs. Pinker's answer comes down to this: "A name is not the same thing as a noun."[23] Consequently, names (and nouns that derive from names) based on nouns with irregular plurals do not acquire them — though, as we see with Red Sox, new irregularities may arise.

Nouns with multiple plurals

Some nouns have two plurals, one used to refer to a number of things considered individually, the other to refer to a number of things collectively. In some cases, one of the two is nowadays archaic or dialectal.

brother brothers brethren14
cannon cannons cannon
child children childer15
cloth cloths clothes16
cow cows kine17
die dice dies18
fish fish fishes19
iris (plant) iris irises20
penny pennies pence21 22
person persons people23
pig pigs swine
sow sows swine

^ Note 14: Brethren was used exclusively earlier, but over time, it has been replaced by brothers. Brethren is still used in some contexts such as the brethren of a monastic order.

^ Note 15: Childer has all but disappeared, but can still be seen in Childermas (Innocents' Day).

^ Note 16: Clothes formerly referred collectively to all of a household's washable cloth articles, but clothes is now used almost exclusively for the garments of people and dolls.

^ Note 17: Kine is still used in some rural English dialects.

^ Note 18: Dies is used as the plural for die in the sense of a mold; dice as the plural (and increasingly as the singular) in the sense of a small random number generator. Dice is also the accepted plural form of die in the semiconductor industry. On gambling and games, we may roll one die or toss two or three dice.

^ Note 19: Fish: the plural for one species of fish, or caught fish, is fish,[citation needed] but for the plural of fish of multiple individuals or species fishes is used. Fishes is also a word with a Biblical connotation.

^ Note 20: For multiple plants, iris is used, but irises is used for multiple blossoms.

^ Note 21: If one has several (British) one-penny pieces, one has several pennies. Pence is used for an amount of money, which can be made up of a number of coins of different denominations: one penny and one five-penny piece are together worth six pence. The suffixed minor currency unit of "p" (/pi/) is often vocalised, where such small divisions of currency are discussed in common speech, and used for both the singular and the "amount plural", but "number plurals" build upon the base values and any omission of the unit shifts the plural to the coin's numerator (e.g. "I have a one /pi/ and three twenty /piz/ and two fifties in my pocket. I cannot believe that I only have one pound, sixty-one /pi/ left after last night."). In written speech, a number of coins might be "two 10ps", although those that prefer to use apostrophes for initialisms might decide to use the variant of "two 10p's".

^ Note 22: Penny and pennies also refer to one or more American or Canadian one-cent pieces, though in American and Canadian usage, a nickel is worth five cents, not five pence. Also, a dime is worth ten cents, not pence, and a quarter (dollar) is worth twenty-five cents, not pence.

^ Note 23: The word people is usually treated as the suppletive plural of person (one person, many people). However, in legal and other formal contexts, the plural of person is persons; furthermore, people can also be a singular noun with its own plural (for example, "We are many persons, from many peoples").

Plurals of symbols and initialisms

Individual letters and abbreviations whose plural would be ambiguous if only an -s were added are pluralized by adding -'s.

mind your p's and q's
A.A.'s and B.A.'s
the note had three PS's

Opinion is divided on whether to extend this use of the apostrophe to related but nonambiguous cases, such as the plurals of numerals (e.g., 1990's vs. 1990s) and words used as terms (e.g., "his writing uses a lot of but's" vs. "his writing uses a lot of buts"). Some writers favor the use of the apostrophe as consistent with its application in ambiguous cases; others say it confuses the plural with the possessive -'s and should be avoided whenever possible in pluralization, a view with which The Chicago Manual of Style concurs.

English and many other European languages form the plural of a one-letter abbreviation by doubling it: p. ("page"), pp. ("pages"); l. ("line"), ll. ("lines"). These abbreviations are used in literary work, such as footnotes and bibliographies.

Acronyms are initialisms that are used and pronounced as if they were words. For example, we have AMTRAK, HAL, LEM, NASA, and NATO. These contrast with the different variety that are read aloud one letter at a time: {C.I.A., C.S.M., D.O.D., E.U., G.C.M., G.P.S., I.B.M., N.A.C.A., N.S.A., R.C.A., R.P.M., S.S.T., T.W.A., U.S.S.R., W.P.A., etc.}

The most consistent approach for pluralizing pronounceable acronyms is to simply add a lowercase "s" as its suffix. This works even for acronyms ending with an s, such as with CASs (pronounced "kazzes"), while still making it possible to use the possessive form ("'s") for the acronyms without confusion. (One sometimes sees "-es" added, which also works acceptably: "OSes.") The old, old style of pluralizing single letters with "'s" was naturally extended to acronyms when they were all commonly written with periods. This form is still preferred by some people for all initialisms and thus "'s" as a suffix is often seen in informal usage.

Plural to singular by back-formation

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.

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 would be bicipites.

The word sastrugi (hard ridges on deep snow) is of Russian origin and its singular is sastruga; but the imaginary Latin-type singular sastrugus has sometimes been used.

Place names

Geographical place names ending with an "s" generally function as grammatically singular even if they look plural, for example: Arkansas, Athens, the Andes, Brussels, Chartres, Dallas, Kansas, Naples, New Orleans, the Netherlands, Paris (France or Texas), the Philippines, Santos, Texas, the River Thames, the United States, and Wales. For example, "The United States is a country in North America."

Plurals of names of peoples

There are several different rules for this.

In discussing peoples whose demonym takes -man or -woman, there are three options: pluralize to -men or -women if referring to individuals, and use the root alone if referring to the whole nation, or add people.

the Dutch
the English
the French
the Irish
the Scots
the Welsh

One can say "a Scots(wo)man" or "a Scot", "Scots(wo)men", "Scottish people", or "Scots", and "the Scottish" or "the Scots". (Scotch is considered old fashioned.)

Several peoples have names that are simple nouns and can be pluralized by the addition of either -s or -ish (the later case often calls for the elimination of terminal letters so the pluralizing suffix can be connected directly with the last consonant of the root):

Dane Danes the Danes
the Danish
Finn Finns the Finns
the Finnish
Spaniard Spaniards the Spaniards
the Spanish (much more common)
Swede Swedes the Swedes
the Swedish

Names of peoples that end in -ese take no plural:

Chinese Chinese
Chinese people
the Chinese
Japanese Japanese
Japanese people
the Japanese

Other names of peoples that have no plural form include Swiss and Québécois, although the latter is sometimes interchangeable with Quebec(k)er, which pluralizes as Quebec(k)ers.

Most names for Native Americans are not pluralized:

Zuni, for example

Some exceptions include Algonquins, Apaches, Aztecs, Black Hawks, Chippewas, Hurons, Incas, Mayans, Mohawks, Oneidas, and Seminoles. Note also the following words borrowed from Inuktitut:

Inuk Inuit
Iqalummiuq Iqalummiut ("inhabitant of Iqaluit")
Nunavimmiuq Nunavimmiut ("inhabitant of Nunavik")
Nunavummiuq Nunavummiut ("inhabitant of Nunavut")

Names of most other peoples of the world are pluralized using the normal English rules.

Discretionary plurals

A number of words like army, company, crowd, fleet, government, majority, mess, number, pack, and party may refer either to a single entity or the members of the set that compose it. 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."[24] Also in British English, names of towns and countries take plural verbs when they refer to sports teams but singular verbs when they refer to the actual place: England are playing Germany tonight refers to a football game, but England is the most populous country of the United Kingdom refers to the country. In North American English, such words are invariably treated as singular.

"Snob plurals"

Another type of irregular plural occurs in the register of the English upper classes in the context of field sports, where the singular form is used in place of the plural, as in "two lion" or "five pheasant". Eric Partridge refers to these as "snob plurals" and conjectures that they may have developed by analogy with the common English irregular plural animal words "deer", "sheep" and "trout".[25]

See also


  1. ^ English Irregular Plural Nouns
  2. ^ UNIT S4: YS OR IES?
  3. ^ Mary Fulbrook, The Two Germanies. 1945-1990 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996)
  4. ^ Henry Ashby Turner, The two Germanies since 1945 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987)
  5. ^ Entry for "money" in dictionary.com
  6. ^ a b Emerson, Oliver Farrar (1921). The history of the English language. Macmillan. p. 299. OCLC 317104. http://books.google.com/books?id=VjUFAQAAIAAJ. 
  7. ^ E.g. Collins English Dictionary, 6th ed. (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003).
  8. ^ Raymond, Eric (1993). "How Jargon Works". The New Hacker's Dictionary. p. 12. "But note that 'Unixen' and 'Twenexen' are never used. It has been suggested that this is because '-ix' and '-ex' are Latin singular endings that attract a Latinate plural." 
  9. ^ "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." http://www.bartleby.com/61/51/D0035100.html
  10. ^ "...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
  11. ^ Summary of dictionary sources and scholarly usage
  12. ^ New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1999
  13. ^ "...in educated everyday usage as represented by the Guardian newspaper, it is nowadays most often used as a singular." http://www.eisu2.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/revis006.htm
  14. ^ AskOxford: data
  15. ^ http://www.eisu2.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/revis006.htm
  16. ^ UoN Style Book - Singular or plural - Media and Public Relations Office - The University of Nottingham
  17. ^ http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=182902
  18. ^ AskOxford: What are the plurals of 'octopus', 'hippopotamus', 'syllabus'?
  19. ^ "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." http://www.eisu2.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/revis006.htm
  20. ^ sagan at dictionary.reference.com (definition from the Jargon File)
  21. ^ William Safire, ON LANGUAGE; Footprints on the Infobahn, New York Times, April 17, 1994
  22. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Specie". Online Etymological Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=specie. Retrieved 29 August 2010. 
  23. ^ Pinker, Stephen, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Perennial, 2000 [1994]), 139.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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.

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