A plurality of plurals

How do you make a word into a plural in English?

Plurals are categorised as either regular – i.e. they follow an agreed set of rules – or irregular – i.e. go their own way. This being English, though, even regular plurals aren’t always that regular!

Regular plurals

By far the most common way to make a word into a plural is simply to add an s to the end: one cat, two cats.

If the word ends in s, sh, x or ch, you add es to the end, so one fox, two foxes. The extra letter gives a word that can actually be said out loud: foxs, for example, doesn’t so much trip off the tongue as trip it up.

Simple, right?

Of course not. After the rules come the exceptions, of which the main ones are:

If a word ends in a y, the plural is made by changing the y to ies, so one puppy, two puppies, unless the letter before the y is a vowel, in which case you just add an s as with any other word: e.g. one key, two keys.

If the word ends in o, sometimes you make a plural by adding es – one tomato, two tomatoes – but sometimes you just add an s – one photo, two photos. Sometimes you can choose either option, so you can have halos or haloes as the plural of halo.

If the word ends in f or fe, the final letter changes to a v before adding es, so one wolf, two wolves. Except when it doesn’t, so it’s chefs as a plural of chef, not cheves.

Words ending in oof generally follow a ‘pick your own ending’ approach, so horses can have four hoofs or four hooves, depending on where you come from and your own personal preference.

(These exceptions are still considered ‘regular’, despite the obvious lack of regularity. It constantly amazes me that anyone ever learns to speak this weird language.)

Irregular plurals and other oddities

Irregular plurals, as I said at the start, go their own way. Some have their own rules – just not ones that fit with the rest of the English language – while some seem totally random. You just have to know them.

Some words don’t have a plural form, so it’s one deer, two deer, and one sheep, two sheep. Fish can be singular or plural, but fishes is also acceptable.

One man, two men; one woman, two women. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this extends to other words ending in ‘an’, however: it’s two plans rather than two plen.

One person, two people.

One child, two children. (If you’ve ever wondered why, it’s because, until Shakespeare’s time, plurals were made by adding n where we would today use s, and for some reason we never got around to changing it in this case. The singular was originally childre, which is where the ‘r’ comes from.)

One goose, two geese.

One mouse, two mice; one louse, two lice. But one house, two houses. (Which I always think is a bit of shame as hice would be a good word.)

Finally, at least for the purposes of this post, there are words that have been adopted from other languages without ever becoming fully naturalised (which the English language seems to like to do):

Phenomenon (doo-doo-de-doo-doo)
Phenomenon (doo-doo-de-doo-doo)

One phenomenon (doo-doo-de-doo-doo); two phenomena. One criterion, two criteria (although ‘criteria’ is so often used as both singular and plural that I wouldn’t be surprised to see this becoming ‘correct English’ in the not too distant future. It has already happened with data, which, strictly speaking, is a plural – the singular is datum – but is almost always used as both singular and plural).

Simple, right? No, of course not, but that’s the English language for you!



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