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English plural

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.

Note that phonetic transcriptions provided in this article are for North American English.

Contents

Regular plurals

The plural morpheme in English is suffixed to the end of most nouns. The plural form is usually represented orthographically by adding -s to the singular form (see exceptions below). The phonetic form of the plural morpheme is by default. When the preceding sound is a voiceless consonant, it is pronounced [s]. Examples:

boy boys /bɔɪz/
girl girls /gɝlz/
chair chairs /ʧɛɹz/
cat cats /kts/

Where a noun ends in a sibilant sound — one of [s], [ʃ], [ʧ], [z], [ʒ], and [ʤ] — the plural is formed by adding [ɪz] (also pronounced [əz]), which is spelled -es if the word does not already end with -e:

glass glasses /ˈglsɪz/
dish dishes /ˈdɪʃɪz/
witch witches /ˈwɪʧɪz/
phase phases /ˈfeɪzɪz/
judge judges /ˈʤʌʤɪz/

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

The -ies rule: nouns ending in a y preceded by a consonant drop the y and add -ies (pronounced [iz]):

cherry cherries
lady ladies

Note, however, that proper nouns (particularly those for people or places) ending in a y preceded by a consonant form their plurals regularly:

Harry Harrys (as in There are three Harrys in our office)
Germany Germanys (as in The two Germanys were unified in 1990)

This does not apply to words that are merely capitalised common nouns:

P&O Ferries (from ferry)

A few common nouns ending in a y preceded by a consonant form their plurals regularly:

henry henrys
zloty zlotys

Almost-regular plurals

Many nouns of Italian or Spanish origin are exceptions to the -oes rule:

canto cantos
grotto grottos
piano pianos
portico porticos
quarto quartos
solo solos

Many nouns ending in a voiceless fricative mutate that sound to a voiced fricative before adding the plural ending. In the case of [f] changing to [v] the mutation is indicated in the orthography as well:

calf calves /kvz/
wolf wolves /wʊlvz/
bath baths /bz/
mouth mouths /maʊz/
house houses /haʊzɪz/

Some retain the voiceless consonant:

proof proofs
moth moths
place places

Some can do either:

dwarf dwarfs / dwarves
hoof hoofs / hooves
staff2 staffs / staves
turf turfs / turves (latter rare)
roof roofs / rooves (latter archaic)
Dwarf is an interesting case: 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 popularised dwarves, perhaps for its old-fashioned sound.  Multiple dwarf stars, or non-mythological short human beings, however, are dwarfs.

Note 2: For staff in the sense of "a body of employees", the plural is always staffs; otherwise both staffs and staves are acceptable, except in compounds; such as flagstaffs. The 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. While they may seem quirky, they usually stem from older forms of English or from foreign borrowings.

Irregular Germanic plurals

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

ox oxen (also oxes in metaphorical sense)
cow kine (archaic/regional)
eye eyen (rare, found in some regional dialects)
shoe shoon (also rare/obsolete)
child children (with the original stem extension -r-)

The word box, referring to a computer, is semi-humorously pluralized boxen in the Leet dialect. Multiple Vax computers, likewise, are sometimes called Vaxen.

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

Some nouns have singular and plural alike, although they are sometimes seen as regular plurals:

sheep
deer
fish, cod, trout, etc.

Irregular plurals of foreign origin

Because English includes words from so many ancestral languages, as well as many loanwords from Classical Greek and Latin and other modern languages, there are many other forms of plurals. Such nouns often retain their original plurals, at least for some time after they are introduced. In some cases both forms are still vying for attention: for example, for a librarian, the plural of appendix is appendices (following the original language); for physicians, however, the plural of appendix is appendixes. Likewise, a radio engineer works with antennas and an entomologist deals with antennae. The "correct" form is the one that sounds better in context, or that people in the field use.

Correctly formed Latin plurals are the most acceptable, and indeed are often required, in academic and scientific contexts. In common usage, plurals with -s are sometimes preferred.

  • Final a becomes ae (strictly æ) — or just adds s:
formula formulae / formulas
alumna alumnae
  • Final ex or ix becomes ices (pronounced [ɪˌsiːz] or [əˌsiz]) — or just adds es:
vertex vertices /ˈvɝtɪˌsiːz/
matrix matrices /ˈmeɪtɹɪˌsiːz/
index indices /ˈɪndɪˌsiːz/ -or- indexes

Some people treat process as if it belonged to this class, pronouncing processes /ˈpɹɑsɪˌsiːz/ instead of standard /ˈpɹɑsɛsɪz/

  • Final is becomes es (pronounced [ˌiːz]:
axis axes /ˈkˌsiːz/
testis testes /ˈtɛsˌtiːz/
crisis crises /ˈkɹaɪˌsiːz/

Note that axes the plural of axis is pronounced differently from axes (/ˈksɪz/) the plural of axe.

  • Final ies remains unchanged:
series series
species species
  • Final on becomes a:
phenomenon phenomena (more below)
criterion criteria
automaton automata
polyhedron polyhedra
  • Final um becomes a – or just adds s
addendum addenda
memorandum memoranda / memorandums
forum fora / forums
medium media (in communications) / mediums (spiritualists)
  • Final us becomes i (second declension) or era or ora (third declension) — or just adds es (especially in fourth declension, where it would otherwise be the same as the singular):
radius radii
alumnus alumni
viscus viscera
corpus corpora
prospectus prospectuses

Note: See article on the Plural of virus.

  • 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 add ta:
stigma stigmata
stoma stomata
zeugma zeugmata

Though some take s more commonly:

schema schemata / schemas
dogma dogmata / dogmas
  • Final us in nouns of Greek origin "properly" add es. These words are also heard with the Latin -i instead, which is sometimes considered "over-correct", but this is so common as to be acceptable in most circumstances, even technical ones.
cactus cactuses / cacti
hippopotamus hippopotamuses / hippopotami
octopus octopuses / octopi
platypus platypuses
rhinoceros rhinoceroses / rhinoceri

The Greek plural for words ending in -pus(gr. pos) meaning "foot", is podes, but this plural is not used in English.

  • Some nouns of French origin add x
beau beaux
chateau chateaux
  • Nouns of Hebrew language origin add im or ot (generally m/f) — or just s
    Note that ot is pronounced os in the Ashkenazi dialect.
cherub cherubim / cherubs
seraph seraphim / seraphs
matzoh matzot / matzos
  • Some nouns of Japanese origin have no plural and do not change:
samurai samurai
otaku otaku

However, other nouns such as kimonos, 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. The addition or omission of the s on nouns of Māori origin varies throughout the sociolinguistic spectrum and is politically charged: among Pakeha (New Zealanders of predominantly European descent), older speakers are more likely to add an s, while younger speakers are more likely to omit. Omission is regarded by many as an example of political correctness.
waka waka
marae marae
kowhai kowhai / kowhais
tui tuis / tui

Note: kiwi, when referring to the bird, may or may not take an s, but when used as an informal term for a New Zealander, always takes an s. Māori, when referring to a person of that ethnicity, seldom takes an s in Standard New Zealand English, where it is seen as culturally insensitive, however a number of speakers, particularly older Pakeha, still add the s. Many speakers avoid the use of Māori as a noun, and instead use it only as an adjective.

  • Nouns from languages that have donated few words to English, and that are spoken by relatively few English-speakers, generally form plurals as if they were native English words:
canoe canoes
kayak kayaks
igloo igloos
sauna saunas
cwm cwms (Welsh valley)

Some words of foreign origin are much better known in the plural; usage of the proper singular may be considered pedantic or actually incorrect by some speakers. In common usage, the proper plural is considered the singular form. Back-formation has usually resulted in a regularized plural.

Proper singular Proper plural/
common singular
Common plural
candelabrum candelabra candelabras
datum data data (mass noun)
agendum agenda agendas / (less common) agendae
graffito graffiti graffiti (mass noun)
insigne insignia insignias
alga algae algae / algaes
opus opera operas
viscus viscera (singular not in common usage)
phalanx phalanges

Note: A single piece of data is often referred to as a data point. A military phalanx is pluralized phalanxes. The phalanges as body parts (fingers and toes) are rarely referred to in the singular.

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

phenomenon phenomena
criterion criteria
symposium symposia

Plurals of numbers

English, like some other languages, treats large numerals like nouns, such as in "ten soldiers" and "a hundred soldiers." This is why dozens is preferred to tens while hundreds and thousands are all right.

Plurals of numerals differ according to how they are used. Such words include dozen, score, hundred, thousand, million, and so forth. The following examples apply to all of these.

  • 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 could say several hundred, but many 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.
  • The preposition of is used when speaking of non-specific 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 oriental rugs. However, if the pronoun is included with the specific item, the of is used: five million of those dollar bills.

Defective nouns

Some nouns have no singular form. Such a noun is called a plurale tantum:

annals, billiards*, measles, nuptials, thanks, tidings, victuals/vittles
* This refers to the table game, not the number 1015 in the long scale system of numeric names, which can be singular billiard.

However, some of them do have singular adjective forms, such as in billiard ball. In addition, some of them are treated as singular in construction, such as in "billiards is a game played on a table with multiple balls and a cue stick."

Neither do some names of things having two parts:

pants, scissors, trousers, tweezers

Note, however, that these words are interchangeable with a pair of scissors, a pair of trousers, and so forth. Nor are scissor, trouser, tweezer, or pant the names of the individual parts. However, the fashion industry frequently calls a single pair of pants a pant; this is a back-formation. (See the Plural to singular by back-formation section below.)

A compound that has a head at the beginning, particularly a legal term from French, commonly pluralizes its head:

attorney general attorneys general
son-in-law sons-in-law
court martial courts martial
armful armsful / armfuls (the latter is preferred today)
governor-general governors-general

They don't have to be considered irregular, because an attorney general is a kind of attorney, not general, and a court martial is a kind of court, not martial. It is common in informal speech to pluralize the last word in the usual way, but in edited prose, the forms given are preferred.

On the other hand, if a compound can be thought to have two heads, both of them are sometimes pluralized, especially when the first head has an irregular plural form:

man-child men-children
manservant menservants
Knight Hospitaller Knights Hospitallers
agent provocateur agents provocateurs
woman doctor women doctors

See also the Plurals of headless nouns section below.

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
goodness, idleness, wisdom, deceit, honesty, freshness
  • Arts and sciences (even those ending in ics are treated as singular)
chemistry, geometry, surgery, biometrics, mechanics, optics, blues (music)
  • Other mass nouns, such as chemical elements and substances:
antimony, gold, oxygen, equipment, furniture, species, distress, sand, water, air, information

Some mass nouns can be pluralized, but the meaning thereof may change slightly. For example, when I have two pieces of sand, I do not have two sands; I have sand. There is more sand in your pile, not more sands. But there could be 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 sands of Africa.

It is rare to pluralize furniture in this way. Nor would information be so treated, except in the case of criminal informations, which are prosecutor's briefs similar to indictments.

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, pieces of advice), deceits as a series of instances of deceitful behavior, 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 and species make a fascinating case. Both words come from a Latin word meaning "kind", but they do not form a singular-plural pair; they are separate nouns. Coins, such as nickels, euros, and cents are specie, but there is no plural. The idea is "payment in kind". And species, the "kinds of living things", is the same in singular and plural.
  • Some names of elements, such as nickel, have plurals in non-chemical uses, as "five nickels to the quarter".

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 brethren
cannon cannons cannon
child children childera
cow cows kineb
die dice diesc
fish fish fishesd
penny pennies pencee
sow sows swine
pig pigs swine
iris iris irisesf
cloth cloths clothesg

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

Note b: Kine is still used in rural English dialects.

Note c: Dies is used as the plural for die in the sense of a mould; dice as the plural (and increasingly as the singular) in the sense of a small random number generator.

Note d: Fish: the plural for one species of fish, or caught fish, is fish, but for live fish of many species, or in poetic usage, fishes is used.

Note e: If you have several (British) one-penny pieces you have 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. Penny and pennies also refer to one or more U.S. one-cent pieces. But in American usage, a nickel is worth five cents, not five pence, though a penny is worth one cent (not plural).

Note f: For multiple plants, say iris, but for multiple blossoms say irises.

Note g: Clothes refers collectively to all of the cloth covering a person's body.

A final odd case is person. 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 abbreviations

Symbols 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"

Usage is divided on whether to extend this usage of the apostrophe to non-ambigious cases, such as the plurals of numbers (1990's), words used as terms (his writing contains a lot of but's), and capitalized abbreviations (PC's). Some writers use this form in a desire for consistency, whereas others say it confuses the plural with the possessive -'s.

Plurals of headless nouns

Linguist Steven Pinker, in his book, The Language Instinct discusses what he calls "headless words", typically bahuvrihis, like lowlife and Red Sox, where the life and sox are not heads semantically; that is, a lowlife is not a type of life, nor are Red Sox a kind of sock. Thus, more than one lowlife is lowlifes and a single member of the Boston baseball team is a Red Sox. Other examples include the ice-hockey Maple Leafs, not Maple Leaves, sabertooth and sabertooths, flatfoot and flatfoots, tenderfoot and tenderfoots, still life and still lifes.

Mouse is sometimes pluralized mouses when it refers to a computer mouse, although, in this case, mice is just as common because of the physical similarity between the input device and the rodent.

Plural to singular by back-formation

Some words have started out with unusually formed singulars and plurals, but more "normal" singular-plural pairs have resulted by back-formation. For an example from the vegetable world, pease was the singular and peasen the plural, but over the centuries, first pease became the plural and pea the singular, and finally the plural was altered to peas. Similarly, termites and primates were the three-syllable plurals of termes and primas, respectively, but these singulars were lost, the plurals given two syllables, and now we have termite and termites and primate and primates. Syringe is a back-formation from syringes, itself the plural of syrinx, a musical instrument. Cherry is from Norman French cherise. Finally, phases was once the plural of phasis, but the singular is now phase.

Kudos is a singular Greek word meaning praise, but the same process may be happening to it. At present, kudo is an error, however.

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.

Dutchman
Dutchwoman
Dutchmen
Dutchwomen
the Dutch
Englishman
Englishwoman
Englishmen
Englishwomen
the English
Frenchman
Frenchwoman
Frenchmen
Frenchwomen
the French
Irishman
Irishwoman
Irishmen
Irishwomen
the Irish
Scotsman
Scotswoman
Scotsmen
Scotswomen
the Scots
Welshman
Welshwoman
Welshmen
Welshwomen
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:

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

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

Chinese Chinese
Chinese people
the Chinese

Neither do Swiss or Qubcois.

Most names for Native Americans are not pluralized:

Ojibwa
Iroquois
Blood
Mi'kmaq

Some exceptions include Crees, Mohawks, Hurons, Algonquins, Chippewas, Oneidas, Aztecs. Note also the following words borrowed from Inuktitut:

Inuk Inuit
Nunavummiuq Nunavummiut
Iqalummiuq Iqalummiut
Nunavimmiuq Nunavimmiut
inukshuk inukshuit

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

Discretionary plurals

A number of words like army, fleet, Government, company, party, pack, crowd, mess, number, and majority, may refer either to a single entity or the members of the set that compose it. Thus they are "treated as singular or plural at discretion," as H.W. Fowler put it, who noted 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" (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., revised by Sir Ernest Gowers [New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965], p. 403).

Last updated: 10-18-2005 01:11:15
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