views updated May 23 2018

PLURAL A term contrasting with SINGULAR (and dual) in the NUMBER system of a language. In English, it refers to ‘more than one’ (one and a half hours) as well as ‘two or more’ (five hours). Where there is a contrast with dual words such as both and neither, plurals refer to a minimum of three: all her brothers, any of her brothers, and none of her brothers entail that she has at least three. The word every, though it takes singular concord, also implies three or more. Although the principles for forming plurals in English are relatively simple, the history of the language has led to some complications.


(1) The majority of countable nouns make their plurals by adding -s to the singular, except words ending in a sibilant, which add -es unless there is already an e in the spelling: buses, ditches, wishes, bases, garages, judges. The spelling -es is generally pronounced like iz, but the -s ending is pronounced in two different ways: usually an s-sound after a voiceless sound (taps, cats, locks), but a z-sound if the preceding sound is voiced (tabs, cads, logs, boys, lines). (2) Nouns ending in a consonant plus y usually change the y to i, and add -es (mysteries, parties), but proper nouns may retain the letter y (the Henrys; the two Germanys: but compare the two Maries, the Ptolemies) as do compounds with -by (lay-bys, stand-bys). (3) Some nouns ending in -o and generally of foreign origin simply add s (photos, radios), but others have -es (heroes, zeroes), and some have either (mosquitos/mosquitoes). (4) Nouns written with a final f or fe take regular or weak plurals (cliffs), irregular or strong plurals (halves, knives), or either (dwarfs/dwarves, hoofs/hooves, scarfs/scarves).


Most compound nouns form their plurals in the usual way (boyfriends, crime reporters, sit-ins), but some pluralize both elements (women pilots). In traditional and rather formal usage, some pluralize the first element (runners-up, courts martial, brothers-in-law), but often they have a more colloquial alternative (runner-ups, court martials, brothers-in-laws).


Most place names ending in -s are singular: Athens, Paris, Naples, the Thames, Wales. Even names of countries which appear plural normally take singular concord (The Netherlands/the United States is …), although plural concord is possible if the meaning is, for example, a national or other comparable sports team (The Netherlands are playing well). However, mountain ranges and groups of islands are normally plural only: the Himalayas/the Hebrides are

Plural-only usages

(1) Some plural nouns in -s have no singular form: clothes, remains, thanks. (2) Other plural-only words may appear to have singular forms, but these are either part of a singular/plural countable pair with a different meaning (plural only for arms meaning weapons, arm/arms for the parts of the body) or the singular form is an uncountable noun with a different meaning (£500,000 damages compared with storm damage). (3) Some words referring to tools and clothes with two parts are plural only (scissors, tights). The normal way of counting them is a pair of scissors, two pairs of trousers, etc.

Words ending in -s

(1) Although some singular words ending in -s add -es for plural (buses, businesses), other have the same form in both singular and plural: (BrE) an innings, two innings (compare AmE an inning), and means in every means in my power, by all means, by no means. (2) Some uncountable nouns end in -s, the best-known of which is news. Others include names of games (billiards, bowls) and words for subjects and sciences with an -ics ending (mathematics, physics, politics). (3) Some -ics words are singular or plural according to sense (Economics is an arid subject; What are the economics of buying a house in Spain?), while others give rise to uncertainty: Metaphysics is/are too difficult for me. In some cases, a singular may have been back-formed from the -ics form: a statistic, from statistics. (4) Diseases can give rise to doubt: Measles is/are nasty; I had it/them as a child. The feeling that an -s ending means a plural is strong, and even such countable nouns as crossroads, headquarters, golf links may by followed by a plural verb when the reference is to a single place: The headquarters is/are in London.

Other plural forms

(1) From Old English: child/children, ox/oxen, man/men, woman/women, foot/feet, tooth/teeth, goose/geese, louse/lice, mouse/mice, penny/pence. (2) ‘zero’ plurals (mainly with the names of animals) where singular and plural are the same: one sheep/twenty sheep; a deer/some deer; a salmon/several salmon. In the usage of hunters, the names of animals, birds, and fish are often singular in form: went shooting lion; shot three buffalo. The word fish has two plurals, one unchanged (hundreds of dead fish) and with a collective implication, the other regular (lots of little fishes) and implying individuals together. Zero plurals are common with measurements: She only weighs 98 pound(s), though she is 5 foot/feet 5 inches; I'll take three dozen. (3) Some plural-only words such as cattle, clergy, people (a plural of person, alongside persons), and police. (4) Some foreign plurals, such as formulae, kibbutzim, mujahedin, phenomena, and radii. The plural of French words ending in -eau may be written with an -x or an English -s: chateaux, bureaus. Graffiti is an Italian plural, but the singular graffito is rarely used in English.

Classical plurals

Latin plurals in English are: -i for words ending in the masculine inflection -us (stimulus/stimuli); -ae for singular words ending in feminine -a (larva/larvae); -a for words ending in neuter -um (bacterium/bacteria); -ces for words ending in -x (appendix/appendices). Greek plurals in English are: -a for words ending in neuter -on (criterion/criteria); and -es for words ending in -is (analysis/analyses). The situation with words of Latin and Greek origin which have kept their inflected nominative endings (formula, memorandum, radius) is complex and falls into three types: (1) With fully Anglicized plurals: bonuses, rhinoceroses. (2) Generally with classical plurals: synthesis/syntheses, radius/radii, stimulus/stimuli. (3) With two plurals, the classical for formal contexts and specialized meanings, the vernacular for informal and general use: appendix with appendices and appendixes; cactus with cacti and cactuses; formula with formulae and formulas; referendum with referenda and referendums. There is widespread uncertainty about words ending in -a, which may represent a Latin singular or plural or a Greek plural. In terms of their origin, Latin agenda, data, media, strata and Greek criteria, phenomena are plurals, but have to some extent been reclassified in English. In this matter, however, acceptability varies. Data is often an uncountable noun (There isn't much data), but use of criteria, media (press and television), phenomena, strata (level of society) as singular nouns is often stigmatized. See CLASSICAL ENDING, ENDING, S.


views updated May 29 2018

plu·ral / ˈploŏrəl/ • adj. more than one in number: the meanings of the text are plural. ∎  Gram. (of a word or form) denoting more than one, or (in languages with dual number) more than two: the first person plural. • n. Gram. a plural word or form. ∎  the plural number: the verb is in the plural.DERIVATIVES: plu·ral·ly adv.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French plurel or Latin pluralis, from plus, plur- ‘more.’


views updated May 29 2018

plural (gram.) denoting more than one (or two); also sb. XIV. ME. plurel — OF. plurel (mod. pluriel) — L. plūrālis, f. plūs, plūr- more; see PLUS, -AL1.
Hence plurally (-LY2) XIV. So plurality holding of two or more benefices concurrently by the same person XIV; state of being plural; majority XVI; U.S. excess of votes polled by the leading candidate above those polled by the next XIX. — (O)F. pluralité — late L. plūrālitās. pluri- comb. form of L. plūs, plūr- more, plūrēs several, used in various techn. terms. XIX.