English nouns are inflected for grammatical number – that is, if they are of the countable type, they generally have different forms for singular and plural. This article discusses the variety of ways in which English plural nouns are formed from the corresponding singular forms, as well as various issues concerning the usage of singulars and plurals in English. For plurals of pronouns, see English personal pronouns.
Phonological transcriptions provided in this article are for Received Pronunciation and General American. For more information, see English phonology.
The plural morpheme in English is suffixed to the end of most nouns. Regular English plurals fall into three classes, depending upon the sound that ends the singular form:
Where a singular noun ends in a sibilant sound —, , , , or — the plural is formed by adding . The spelling adds -es, or -s if the singular already ends in -e:
When the singular form ends in a voiceless consonant (other than a sibilant) —, , , (sometimes) or — the plural is formed by adding . The spelling adds -s:
For all other words (i.e. words ending in vowels or voiced non-sibilants) the regular plural adds , represented orthographically by -s:
Phonologically, these rules are sufficient to describe most English plurals. However, certain complications arise in the spelling of certain plurals, as described below.
With nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant, the plural in many cases is spelled by adding -es (pronounced ):
However many nouns of foreign origin, including almost all Italian loanwords, add only -s:
Nouns ending in a y preceded by a consonant usually drop the y and add -ies (pronounced (or in words where the y is pronounced ):
Words ending in quy also follow this pattern:
However, nouns of this type which are proper nouns (particularly names of people) form their plurals by simply adding -s: the two Kennedys, there are three Harrys in our office. With place names this rule is not always adhered to: Germanys and Germanies are both used, and Sicilies and Scillies are the standard plurals of Sicily and Scilly. Nor does the rule apply to words that are merely capitalized common nouns: P&O Ferries (from ferry).
Other exceptions include lay-bys and stand-bys.
Words ending in a y preceded by a vowel form their plurals by adding -s:
However the plural form (rarely used) of money is usually monies, although moneys is also found.
In Old and Middle English voiceless fricatives , mutated to voiced fricatives before a voiced ending. In some words this voicing survives in the modern English plural. In the case of changing to , the mutation is indicated in the orthography as well; also, a silent e is added in this case if the singular does not already end with -e:
In addition, there is one word where is voiced in the plural:
Many nouns ending in or (including all words where is represented orthographically by gh or ph) nevertheless retain the voiceless consonant:
Some can do either:
There are many other less regular ways of forming plurals, usually stemming from older forms of English or from foreign borrowings.
Some nouns have identical singular and plural. Many of these are the names of animals:
The plural deers is listed in some dictionaries. As a general rule, game or other animals are often referred to in the singular for the plural in a sporting context: "He shot six brace of pheasant", "Carruthers bagged a dozen tiger last year", whereas in another context such as zoology or tourism the regular plural would be used. Eric Partridge refers to these sporting terms as "snob plurals" and conjectures that they may have developed by analogy with the common English irregular plural animal words "deer", "sheep" and "trout". Similarly, nearly all kinds of fish have no separate plural form (though there are exceptions—such as rays, sharks or lampreys). As to the word fish itself, the plural is usually identical to the singular, although fishes is sometimes used, especially when meaning "species of fish". Fishes is also used in iconic contexts, such as the Bible story of the loaves and fishes, or the reference in The Godfather, "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
Other nouns that have or may have identical singular and plural forms include:
Certain names of peoples are not inflected for the plural:
This includes most names for Native American peoples, for example:
Some exceptions include Algonquins, Apaches, Aztecs, Black Hawks, Chippewas, Hurons, Incas, Mayans, Mohawks, Oneidas, and Seminoles.
Certain other words borrowed from foreign languages such as Japanese and Māori are not inflected in the plural; see Irregular plurals from other languages below.
The plural of a few nouns can also be formed from the singular by adding -n or -en, stemming from the Old English weak declension. Only the following three are commonly found:
The following -(e)n plurals are found in dialectal, rare, or archaic usage:
The word box, referring to a computer, may be pluralized semi-humorously to boxen in the hacker subculture. In the same context, multiple VAX computers are sometimes called Vaxen particularly if operating as a cluster, but multiple Unix systems are usually Unices along the Latin model.
The plural is sometimes formed by simply changing the vowel sound of the singular (these are sometimes called mutated plurals):
This group consists of words that historically belong to the Old English consonantal declension, see Germanic umlaut: I-mutation in Old English. There are many compounds of man and woman that form their plurals in the same way: postmen, policewomen, etc.
When referring to the computer mouse, both mouses and mice are accepted.
The plural of mongoose is mongooses. Mongeese is wrong, as it is a back-formation by mistaken analogy to goose / geese. It is often used in a jocular context.
Some words have irregular plurals that do not fit any of the types given here.
English has borrowed a great many words from Latin and Classical Greek. The general trend with loanwords is toward what is called Anglicization or naturalization, that is, the re-formation of the word and its inflections as normal English words. Many nouns (particularly ones from Latin) have retained their original plurals for some time after they are introduced. Other nouns have become Anglicized, taking on the normal "s" ending. In some cases, both forms are still competing.
The choice of a form can often depend on context: for a linguist, the plural of appendix is appendices (following the original language); for physicians, however, the plural of appendix is appendixes. Likewise, a radio or radar engineer works with antennas, but an entomologist deals with antennae. The choice of form can also depend on the level of discourse: traditional Latin plurals are found more often in academic and scientific contexts, whereas in daily speech the Anglicized forms are more common. In the following table, the Latin plurals are listed, together with the Anglicized forms when these are more common.
Different paradigms of Latin pronunciation can lead to confusion as to the number or gender of the noun in question. As traditionally used in English, including scientific, medical, and legal contexts, Latin nouns retain the classical inflection with regard to spelling; however the pronunciation of those inflections are anglicized. The entomologist may write antennae but pronounces it /ænˈtɛni/. This may cause confusion for those who have learned a more authentic model of Latin pronunciation. The word alumnus/a is notorious in this regard, as a given inflection according to the traditional Anglicized model of Latin pronunciation sounds the same as a different number or gender in the more authentic model of pronunciation.
The fact that many of these plurals do not end in -s has led some of them to be reinterpreted as singular forms. This is particularly the case with the words datum and medium (as in a "medium of communication"), where the original plurals data and media are now, in many contexts, used more commonly as singular mass nouns: "The media is biased"; "This data shows us that ..." (although a number of scientists, especially of British origin, still say "These data show us that ..."). See below for more information. A similar process is causing words such as criteria and phenomena to be used as singular by some speakers, although this is still considered incorrect in standard usage (see below).
Scientific abbreviations for words of Latin origin ending in -a, such as SN for supernova, can form a plural by adding -e, as SNe for supernovae.
Some people treat process as if it belonged to this class, pronouncing processes instead of standard . Since the word comes from Latin processus, whose plural in the fourth declension is processūs with a long u, this pronunciation is by analogy, not etymology.
Axes , the plural of axis, is pronounced differently from axes , the plural of ax(e).
Colloquial usages based in a humorous fashion on the second declension include Elvii to refer to multiple Elvis impersonators and Loti, used by petrolheads to refer to Lotus automobiles in the plural.
Some Greek plurals are preserved in English (cf. Plurals of words of Greek origin):
See also French compounds below.
Foreign terms may take native plural forms, especially when the user is addressing an audience familiar with the language. In such cases, the conventionally formed English plural may sound awkward or be confusing.
Ot is pronounced os (with unvoiced s) in the Ashkenazi dialect.
Other nouns such as kimonos, ninjas, futons, and tsunamis are more often seen with a regular English plural.
The majority of English compound nouns have one basic term, or head, with which they end. These are nouns and are pluralized in typical fashion:
Some compounds have one head with which they begin. These heads are also nouns and the head usually pluralizes, leaving the second, adjectival, term unchanged:
It is common in informal speech to instead pluralize the last word in the manner typical of most English nouns, but in edited prose, the forms given above are preferred.
If a compound can be thought to have two heads, both of them tend to be pluralized when the first head has an irregular plural form:
Two-headed compounds in which the first head has a standard plural form, however, tend to pluralize only the final head:
In military usage, the term general, as part of an officer's title, is etymologically an adjective, but it has been adopted as a noun and thus a head, so compound titles employing it are pluralized at the end:
For compounds of three or more words that have a head (or a term functioning as a head) with an irregular plural form, only that term is pluralized:
For many other compounds of three or more words with a head at the front —especially in cases where the compound is ad hoc and/or the head is metaphorical— it is generally regarded as acceptable to pluralize either the first major term or the last (if open when singular, such compounds tend to take hyphens when plural in the latter case):
With a few extended compounds, both terms may be pluralized—again, with an alternative (which may be more prevalent, e.g., heads of state):
With extended compounds constructed around o', only the last term is pluralized (or left unchanged if it is already plural):
See also the Headless nouns section below.
Many English compounds have been borrowed directly from French, and these generally follow a somewhat different set of rules. French-loaned compounds with a head at the beginning tend to pluralize both words, according to French practice:
For compounds adopted directly from French where the head comes at the end, it is generally regarded as acceptable either to pluralize both words or only the last:
French-loaned compounds longer than two words tend to follow the rules of the original language, which usually involves pluralizing only the head at the beginning:
A distinctive case is the compound film noir. For this French-loaned artistic term, English-language texts variously use as the plural films noirs, films noir, and, most prevalently, film noirs. The 11th edition of the standard Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2006) lists film noirs as the preferred style. Three primary bases may be identified for this:
The plural of individual letters is normally written with -'s: there are two h's in this sentence; mind your p's and q's; dot the i's and cross the t's.
Some people extend this use of the apostrophe to other cases, such as plurals of numbers written in figures (e.g. "1990's"), words used as terms (e.g. "his writing uses a lot of but's"). However others prefer to avoid this method (which can lead to confusion with the possessive -'s), and write 1990s, buts; this is the style recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style.
Likewise, acronyms and initialisms are normally pluralized simply by adding (lowercase) -s, as in MPs, although the apostrophe is sometimes seen. Use of the apostrophe is more common in those cases where the letters are followed by periods (B.A.'s), or where the last letter is S (as in PS's and CAS's, although PSs and CASs are also acceptable; the ending -es is also sometimes seen).
English (like Latin and many other European languages) can form a plural of certain one-letter abbreviations by doubling the letter: p. ("page"), pp. ("pages"). Other examples include ll. ("lines"), ff. ("following lines/pages"), hh. ("hands", as a measure), PP. ("Popes"), ss. (or §§) ("sections"), vv. ("volumes"). Some multi-letter abbreviations can be treated the same way, by doubling the final letter: MS ("manuscript"), MSS ("manuscripts"); op. ("opus"), opp. ("opera" as plural of opus).
However often the abbreviation used for the singular is used also as the abbreviation for the plural; this is normal for most units of measurement and currency, as in 10 m ("10 metres").
In The Language Instinct, linguist Steven Pinker discusses what he calls "headless words", typically bahuvrihi compounds, like lowlife and flatfoot, in which life and foot are not heads semantically; that is, a lowlife is not a type of life, and a flatfoot is not a type of foot. When the common form of such a word is singular, it is treated as if it has a regular plural, even if the final constituent of the word is usually pluralized in a nonregular fashion. Thus the plural of lowlife is lowlifes, not "lowlives", according to Pinker. Other proposed examples include:
An exception is Blackfoot, of which the plural can be Blackfeet, though that form of the name is officially rejected by the Blackfoot First Nations of Canada.
Another analogous case is that of sport team names such as the Florida Marlins and Toronto Maple Leafs. For these, see Teams and their members below.
When a headless compound ends with an irregular plural noun, the compound may be pluralized by adding an -s to the irregular plural. An example is 10 pences, the plural of 10 pence meaning a 10-pence coin (also 10p's, pronounced "10 pees").
Some nouns have no singular form. Such a noun is called a plurale tantum. Examples include cattle, thanks, clothes (originally a plural of cloth).
A particular set of nouns, describing things having two parts, comprises the major group of pluralia tantum in modern English:
These words are interchangeable with a pair of scissors, a pair of trousers, and so forth. In the American fashion industry it is common to refer to a single pair of pants as a pant —though this is a back-formation, the English word (deriving from the French pantalon) was originally singular. In the same field, one half of a pair of scissors separated from the other half is, rather illogically, referred to as a half-scissor. Tweezers used to be part of this group, but tweezer has come into common usage only since the second half of the twentieth century.
There are also some plural nouns whose singular forms exist, though they are much more rarely encountered than the plurals:
Mass nouns (or uncountable nouns) do not represent distinct objects, so the singular and plural semantics do not apply in the same way. Some examples:
Some mass nouns can be pluralized, but the meaning in this case may change somewhat. For example, when I have two grains of sand, I do not have two sands; I have sand. There is more sand in your pile than in mine, not more sands. However, there could be the many "sands of Africa" — either many distinct stretches of sand, or distinct types of sand of interest to geologists or builders, or simply the allusive The Sands of Mars.
It is rare to pluralize furniture in this way and information is never pluralized.
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 Bob's wisdom (that is, don't run with scissors, defer to those with greater knowledge), deceits as a series of instances of deceitful behavior (lied on income tax, dated my wife), and the different idlenesses of the worker as plural distinct manifestations of the mass concept of idleness (or as different types of idleness, "bone lazy" versus "no work to do").
The pair specie and species both come from a Latin word meaning "kind", but they do not form a singular-plural pair. In Latin, specie is the ablative singular form, while species is the nominative form, which happens to be the same in both singular and plural. In English, species behaves similarly —as a noun with identical singular and plural— while specie is treated as a mass noun, referring to money in the form of coins (the idea is of "[payment] in kind").
Certain words which were originally plural in form have come to be used almost exclusively as singulars (usually uncountable); for example billiards, measles, news, mathematics, physics etc.
Some words of foreign origin are much better known in the plural; usage of the original singular may be considered pedantic or actually incorrect or worse by some speakers. In the examples below, the original plural is now commonly used as a singular, and in some cases a regular English plural (effectively a double plural) has been formed from it.
Magazine was derived from Arabic via French. It was originally plural, but in French and English, it is always regarded as singular.
Some other words whose plurals are sometimes misused as singulars include:
Some words have unusually formed singulars and plurals, but develop "normal" singular-plural pairs by back-formation. For example, pease (modern peas) was in origin a singular with plural peasen. However, pease came to be analysed as plural by analogy, from which a new singular pea was formed; the spelling of pease was also altered accordingly, surviving only in the name of the dish pease porridge or pease pudding. Similarly, termites was the three-syllable plural of termes; this singular was lost, however, and the plural form reduced to two syllables. Syringe is a back-formation from syringes, itself the plural of syrinx, a musical instrument. Cherry is from Norman French cherise. Phases was once the plural of phasis, but the singular is now phase.
Kudos is a singular Greek word meaning praise, but is often taken to be a plural. At present, however, kudo is considered an error, though the usage is becoming more common as kudos becomes better known. The name of the Greek sandwich style gyros is increasingly undergoing a similar transformation.
The term, from Latin, for the main upper arm flexor in the singular is the biceps muscle (from biceps brachii); however, many English speakers take it to be a plural and refer to the muscle of only one arm, by back-formation, as a bicep. The correct —although very seldom used— Latin plural would be bicipites.
The word sastrugi (hard ridges on deep snow) is of Russian origin and its singular is sastruga; but the imaginary Latin-type singular sastrugus has sometimes been used.
Geographical names may be treated as singular even if they are plural in form, if they are regarded as representing a single entity such as a country: The United States is a country in North America (similarly with the Netherlands, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, etc.) However if the sense is a group of geographical objects, such as islands or mountains, a plural-form name will be treated as plural: The Hebrides are a group of islands off the coast of Scotland.
A number of words like army, company, crowd, fleet, government, majority, mess, number, pack, and party may refer either to a single entity or the members of the set composing it. If the latter meaning is intended, the word (though singular in form) may be treated as if it were a plural, in that it may take a plural verb and be replaced with a plural pronoun: the government are considering their position (alternatively the government is considering its position). See synesis.
Thus, as H. W. Fowler describes, in British English they are "treated as singular or plural at discretion"; Fowler notes that occasionally a "delicate distinction" is made possible by discretionary plurals: "The Cabinet is divided is better, because in the order of thought a whole must precede division; and The Cabinet are agreed is better, because it takes two or more to agree."
Names of teams, including names of countries for national teams, can be treated the same way in British English, as in England are playing Germany tonight. In North American English, such words (if singular in form) are invariably treated as singular.
The following rules apply to the plurals of numerical terms such as dozen, score, hundred, thousand, million, and similar:
Nouns used attributively to qualify other nouns are generally in the singular, even though for example, a dog catcher catches more than one dog, and a department store has more than one department. This is true even for some binary nouns where the singular form is not found in isolation, such as a trouser mangle or the scissor kick. This is also true where the attribute noun is itself qualified with a number, such as a twenty-dollar bill, a ten-foot pole or a two-man tent. The plural is used for pluralia tantum nouns: a glasses case is for eyeglasses, while a glass case is made of glass (but compare eyeglass case); also an arms race versus arm wrestling. The plural may be used to emphasise the plurality of the attribute, especially in British English but very rarely in American English: a careers advisor, a languages expert. The plural is also more common with irregular plurals for various attributions: women killers are women who kill, whereas woman killers are those who kill women.
In the names of sports teams, sometimes a noun will be given a regular plural in -s even though that noun in normal use has an irregular plural form (a particular case of headless nouns as described above). For example, there are teams called the Florida Marlins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though the word marlin normally has its plural identical to the singular, and the plural of leaf is leaves. (This does not always apply; for example, there is the Minnesota Lynx, not *Lynxes.) Some teams use a non-standard plural spelling in their names, such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
When a sport team's name is plural, the corresponding singular is often used to denote a member of that team; for example a player for the Cincinnati Reds may be referred to as a (Cincinnati) Red. This also applies to the St. Louis Blues ice hockey team, even though it is named after the song the "St. Louis Blues", and thus blues was originally a singular identical to its plural.
When a team's name is plural in form but cannot be singularized by removing an -s, as in Boston Red Sox, the plural is sometimes used as a singular (a player may be referred to as "a Red Sox").
When a team's name is singular, as in Miami Heat and Colorado Avalanche, the same singular word may also sometimes be used to denote a player (a Heat, an Avalanche). When referring to more than one player, it is normal to use Heat players or Avalanche players (although in the latter case the team's plural-form nickname Avs is also available).
For the (especially British) treatment of teams as plural even if they have singular names, see Singulars with collective meaning treated as plural above.
Certain adjectives can be used, uninflected, as plurals denoting people of the designated type. For example unemployed and homeless can be used to mean "unemployed people" and "homeless people", as in There are two million unemployed. Such usage is common with the definite article, to denote people of a certain type generally: the unemployed, the homeless.
This is common with certain nationalities: the British, the Dutch, the English, the French, the Irish, the Spanish, the Welsh, and those where the adjective and noun singular and plural are identical anyway, including the Swiss and those in -ese (the Chinese etc.). In the case of most nationalities, however, the plural of the demonym noun is used for this purpose: (the) Americans, (the) Poles. Cases where the adjective formation is possible, but the noun provides a commonly used alternative, include the Scottish (or more commonly (the) Scots), the Danish (or (the) Danes), the Finnish (or (the) Finns), the Swedish (or (the) Swedes).
The noun is normally used anyway when referring to specific sets of people (five Frenchmen, a few Spaniards), although the adjective may be used especially in case of a group of mixed or unspecified sex, if the demonym nouns are gender-specific: there were five French (or French people) in the bar (if neither Frenchmen or Frenchwomen would be appropriate).