John Larrysson Column: Strange Plurals : Animals

I want to explain some of the stranger irregular English plurals. It is easy to explain non-standard plurals as irregular. In fact they are regular, but follow some patterns that are not well understood.

This week I will tackle the issue with hunted animals. Next week I will look at foreign plurals in English. In the third week I will look at relics from Old English. In the fourth week things that are naturally plural will be covered.

One of the common categories of so-called irregular plurals are words like deer, elk and moose. They are all animals that were hunted for their meat and they do not have a plural form. They are treated as uncountable, in the same way meat is uncountable. When a hunted animal is brought back home to cook, it is meat and not a living animal. Animals kept on a farm are separate animals and are countable and so have plural forms.

[audio 1]

Here are some examples where meat is uncountable, that is without a plural form:


Uncured pork from a firm at Wisbech, Cambs, has been withdrawn from sale by supermarkets and shops.



(The Daily Mirror)



Organic beef and lamb, milk, yogurt and cheese are available.



(UK Health promotion and education leaflets)


Here is an example where meat is hunted:


Bishops and barons were to have the right to take one or two deer when passing through the royal forest.



(The Royal Forests of England)


One point to be cautious about, animals that are hunted, but not eaten, still generally use a plural form. They are not brought home to eat and so are not treated as uncountable meat.


Three foxes were saved from being savagely ripped apart.






Gordon-Cumming (1872) shot 73 tigers in one district along the Narmada River...



(The Deer and the Tiger)


[audio 2]

Some animals are both hunted and found on farms. Even when an animal-word has a plural, if it was hunted, it is usually treated as if they were uncountable. Clearly, these are countable, as they were counted. However the hunted animal does not have a plural form. Sometimes these definition get confused over history. Wild geese are hunted, but geese are also farmed. (The goose/geese plural I'll deal with in a later article.) This language point is confusing and use often varies.

Here are two examples. In the first the hunted ducks have no plural form. In the second the farmed ducks do. (Teal are birds related to ducks.)


I shot two duck and five teal but only recovered one duck and three teal.



(No foreign bones in China: memoirs of imperialism and its ending)



There were two ducks roasting in the oven.



(Willow Farm)


[audio 3]

Fish that are caught in the wild are also treated as hunted animals. The plural fishes exists, but is not always used.


As my flies touched the surface, two trout, each weighing about 10 oz, greedily grabbed; and each successive cast brought two more.



(Tales of the loch)


That is why deer, elk and moose do not have regular plurals, because they are hunted meat animals, often referred to as game animals. These plurals are not really irregular, but follow an Old English rule that has largely been forgotten. Often it is easier for a teacher to explain that these plurals are irregular, but it might be useful for more advanced students to be told why.

[audio 4]

Related Articles:

Strange Plurals: Foreign Words

Strange Plurals: Old English Words

Strange Plurals: Things That Are Naturally Plural & A Summary

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.