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English plural
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English plural

In the English language, nouns are inflected for grammatical number—that is, singular or plural numerus. This article discusses the variety of ways in which English nouns form their plurals. Phonetic transcriptions, given inside slashes, are in SAMPA notation.

Table of contents
1 Regular plurals
2 Almost-regular plurals
3 Irregular plurals
4 Plurals of numbers
5 Defective nouns
6 Nouns with multiple plurals
7 Plural to singular by back formation
8 Plurals of names of peoples

Regular plurals

Most nouns form the plural by adding -s to the singular form (see exceptions below). This is pronounced /z/ except when the preceding sound is a voiceless consonant (see phonation), in which case it is pronounced /s/. Examples:

boy           boys
girl          girls
cat           cats
chair         chairs

Where a noun ends in a sibilant sound—such as s, sh, x, soft ch—the plural is formed by adding es (also pronounced as z with a neutral vowel sound or short i):

glass         glasses
dish          dishes
witch         witches

Phonetically, these rules are sufficient to describe most English plurals. However, there are several complications 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 this rule:

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

Most nouns ending in f or fe form their plurals by changing the f into a v and adding es:

calf          calves
half          halves

Some just add an s:

proof         proofs
muff          muffs

Some can do either:

dwarf         dwarfs / dwarves
hoof          hoofs / hooves
staff         staffs / staves
turf          turfs / turves (latter rare)

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 came along and popularised dwarves. Multiple dwarf stars, or non-mythological short human beings, however, are dwarfs.
  • 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.

  • 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:

    ox            oxen
    eye           eyen    (Rare, found in some regional dialects)
    shoe          shoon   (Also rare/obsolete)

    Note: "box", referring to a computer, is semi-humorously pluralized "boxen" in the Leet dialect.

    The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular, in a process called umlaut (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:

    sheep
    deer
    cod
    series
    trout

    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, an electrician works with antennas and an entomologist deals with antennae. The "correct" form is the one that sounds better in context.

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

    formula        formulae / formulas
    alumna         alumnae

    Final ex becomes ices— or just adds es:

    vertex         vertices
    index          indices / indexes

    Final is becomes es:

    axis          axes
    testis        testes 
    crisis        crises

    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
    medium         media

    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
    virus          viruses
    corpus         corpora

    Note: See article on the Plural of virus.

    stigma        stigmata
    stoma         stomata

    Though some take s more commonly:

    schema        schemata / schemas
    dogma         dogmata / dogmas

    Final us in nouns of Greek origin "properly" add es, but are also commonly heard with the Latin -i instead.

    cactus         cactuses / cacti
    hippopotamus   hippopotamuses / hippopotami
    octopus        octopuses / octopi
    platypus       platypuses
    rhinoceros     rhinoceroses / rhinoceri

    The Greek plural for words ending in -pus meaning "foot", is podes, but that plural is not used in English.

    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

    Nouns of Japanese origin have no plural and do not change:

    kimono         kimono
    samurai        samurai
    otaku          otaku

    Note: kimonos, following the French model, is now generally accepted in English.

    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
    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 plural
                      common singular
    
    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           (not a word in common usage)
    phalanx           phalanges         (not a word in common usage)

    Note: A single piece of data is often referred to as a "data point".

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

    phenomenon        phenomena
    criterion         criteria
    symposium         symposia

    Mouses is sometimes seen for computer pointing devices, although mice is probably more common.

    Plurals of numbers

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

    Defective nouns

    Some nouns have no singular form:

    annals              billiards           cattle
    measles             nuptials
    thanks              tidings             victuals / vittles

    Note, however, that billiard as a singular is used as a number in some versions of British English for 1015 (others will call this a thousand billion or trillion), but when speaking of the table game, only exists as plural. These words do have non-noun forms that do not end in s. For example, thank you or billiard ball.

    Neither do some names of things having two parts:

    scissors
    trousers
    tweezers
    pants

    Note, however, that the fashion industry frequently calls a single pair of pants a pant; this is a back-formation.

    Some words in which the modifier follows the noun form the plural inside the word or phrase, particularly legal terms from French:

    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  
    Knight Hospitaller     Knights Hospitallers
    agent provocateur      agents provocateurs

    It is common in informal speech to pluralise the last word in the usual way, but in edited prose, the forms given are preferred.

    Non-countable, or "mass" nouns do not represent distict objects, so the singular and plural semantics do not apply in the same way. Some examples:

    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 non-countable nouns, such as chemical elements and substances:

    antimony            gold                oxygen
    equipment           furniture           specie              distress
    sand                water               air                 informations

    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 distict stretches of sand, or distinct types of sand perhaps of interest to geologists.

    It would be less acceptable to pluralize "information" or "furniture" in this way.

    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 his wisdom (i.e. pieces of advice), a series of 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).

    It would be less acceptable to pluralize "information" or "furniture" in this way.

    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            childer*
    cow                 cows                kine*
    die                 dice                dies
    fish                fish                fishes*
    penny               pennies             pence*
    sow                 sows                swine
    pig                 pigs                swine 
    iris                iris                irises*
    cloth               cloths              clothes*             

    Childer has all but disappeared, but can still be seen in Childermas (Innocents' Day)
  • Kine is still used in rural English dialects
  • 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
  • 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.
  • For multiple plants, say iris, but for multiple blossoms say irises.
  • Clothes refers collectively to all of the cloth covering a person's body.
  • 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).

  • 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").

    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  

    Regular words and non-ambiguous abbreviations (like PCs or ICBMs) should be pluralized in the normal way, not with an apostrophe, lest they be confused with the possessive.

    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. 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 two options: pluralize to -men or -women if referring to individuals, and use the root alone if referring to the whole nation.

    Englishman       Englishmen        the English
    Frenchwoman      Frenchwomen       the French
    Dutchman or      Dutch people      the Dutch
        Dutchwoman

    This also applies to the Irish and 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 a drink.)

    Several peoples have names that are simple nouns and can be pluralized:

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

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

    Chinese          Chinese           the Chinese
                       (or Chinese people)

    Neither do Swiss or Quebecois.

    Most names for American Aboriginal groups are not pluralized:

    Ojibwa           Ojibwa
    Iroquois         Iroquois
    Blood            Blood
    Mi'kmaq          Mi'kmaq

    Some exceptions include Crees, Mohawks, Hurons, Algonquins, Chippewas, Oneidas, Aztecs. Note also:

    Inuk             Inuit

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