John Larrysson Column: Strange Plurals: Things That Are Naturally Plural & A Summary

There are certain things that have no singular form. For various reasons they are countable, but naturally plural. Some diseases are always plural, because the word does not historically refer to the disease, but instead to the symptoms.


The word originally referred to the spots that appear on the person's body. Anyone with the disease has many spots on their skin, never just one. The origin of the word is the plural of the Middle English word masel meaning blemish. There probably was an Old English word, but if so no written record has been found.


Mumps is from the plural of the Middle English word mump, meaning an ugly facial expression. Anyone with the disease has an ugly swollen face until they start to recover.


Tuberculosis is from the Latin word tuber meaning lump + -osis, a plural suffix of Greek origin that describes states or conditions. It refers to the lumps that form in the lungs of people killed by the disease. That medical description went on to become the name of the disease.

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Some things are plural in their natural form. Words like glasses, pants, tights, scissors and shears (big garden scissors) are always plural since they have two parts that make them whole. More than one of them can be counted using the structure pairs of.



4. A pair of tights.



(Jeri Telstar and the Biggest Secret in the World)



By 1990, Tuan employed 320 workers at his Saigon factory and manufactured 245,000 pairs of scissors and shears annually.



(Goodbye Saigon)


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Academic subjects are not countable, because they refer to abstract concepts and not actual countable things. They often appear with a plural form, for example economics, gymnastics, linguistics, mathematics, mechanics, news, physics and politics. Some of these subjects did have singular forms hundreds of years ago. For example between 1400-1700 the word mathematic was in use.

In the names of sciences and other academic subjects, the ending -ics is because of a 16th century revival of the classical Latin use of the suffix -icus (or Greek -ikos) (for the neuter plural of adjectives). This suffix means matters relevant to and was also used as the title of books about the subjects. Latin structures were important because at the time serious academic work was not done in English. English was the language of poor farmers. Academic subjects that got their names in English earlier than five hundred years ago tended to remain in the singular, such as arithmetic, logic and rhetoric.

There are not many cases like these, but they exist. Once one understands why they are plural it makes sense, but for most students it is just treated as something else to remember. The best general rule is to see what is in the dictionary and what other people use most often and use that.

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A Summary


You already know the common and standard plurals. However for completeness and your reference, here is a list of the most common plural noun spelling structures. The spelling of countable nouns is changed (inflected) at the end to show that there is more than one.


Plurals of (countable) nouns are usually made by adding -s or -es to the end (for example: dog/dogs, box/boxes). Some words change their endings in other ways. When in doubt use this structure, it is the most common.


Words ending with a consonant-y, make the plural by changing -y to -ies:



Words ending with a vowel-y, make the plural by adding -s:



Words ending with -ch, -s, -sh, -x, or -z, add -es to make the plural:

dish/dishes, bus/buses, fish/fishes, fox/foxes, fez/fezes

Exception: When the -ch ending of a few words from Latin is pronounced with a 'k' sound /k/, you add -s rather than -es:



Some foreign words are changed the way they would be in the original language: If both the original form and the addition of -s/-es are used, the -s/-es addition is usually the preferred choice.

alumni/alumnus, siu mai/siu mai

(Note:) Words of Latin origin ending in -is use the -es ending:



Old English words ending in a consonant or a single vowel plus -f or -fe, change the -f or -fe to -ves:

half/halves, knife/knives


Words ending in -o add -s or -es to make the plural. Some can be spelled both ways.

avocado/avocados, potato/potatoes, mango/mangos or mangoes


Words ending in -ex or -ix, usually make the plural by changing the ending to -ices or -es, both are often correct: (Use the more standard -es)

index/indices or indexes, helix/helices also helixes


Animals hunted for their meat are treated as uncountable and so have no plural form.


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Related Articles:

Strange Plurals : Animals

Strange Plurals: Foreign Words

Strange Plurals: Old English Words

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.