Ten Rules for Writing Plurals

The plural forms of English words can sometimes be fraught with confusion. It’s a mystery to me how non-native speakers cope with them. The standard rule is that to make a word plural, you add s or es. You use the verb form is with singular words (describing one thing) and are for plural. But there are so many exceptions to these rules that they are now almost redundant. What’s more, some rules have changed completely. Words that once took a plural are now deemed to be singular and vice versa.

Here are 10 rules to help you navigate the maze of plurals. We’ll start with a basic one.

  1. Some words take an s or es plural at the end, but to make them easier to pronounce, the spelling of other letters in the words changes. The letter f changes to v, so wife becomes wives and hoof becomes hooves. For words ending in y, the y changes to ie, and then you add the s at the end, so canary becomes canaries.
  2. There are some words that were once treated as singular words. These describe organisations that have a lot of people in them, but are considered to be one entity. As a result, you would use the singular is verb with them rather than the plural are. Examples include the government is, the team is or the company is. Officially, these should still be treated as singular, but the use of the plural is now acceptable, because it’s used in spoken English, and it’s less ambiguous. So it’s now correct to say, “the government are” or “the team are.”
  3. Similarly, there are words that once took the plural verb are, but are now treated as singular. Media is a word of Latin origin, which describes multiple mediums of communication, but we now say “the media is.” Again, this comes from spoken English, and people are more likely to know what you mean when you say that rather than “the media are.” The word data now follows a similar pattern.
  4. For most words ending in o, you simply add an s to the end of them. You can speak of hippos and trios. The exception is when you’re describing multiple fruit and vegetables, for which you add es. That’s why you write tomatoes and potatoes.
  5. Just to make things a little weirder, there are words ending in s which aren’t plural forms, but you could be forgiven for thinking they were. Grits is the name of an American breakfast dish. It does not mean more than one grit. And have you ever heard of just one shenanigan? Such a thing may well exist, but the word is almost always spelt shenanigans.
  6. It can be hard to know what to do with compound words, words that combine two or more small words. Should you pluralise the first part of the word or the second? Most of the time, it’s the first word that you pluralise, so it’s mothers in law, not mother in laws.
  7. There are a lot of Latin origins words that survive in English and typically end in um or a. Traditionally, for the plural form, you change the a to ae and the um to a. Officially, you still write stadia and formulae. But now it’s acceptable, and even preferred, to write stadiums and formulas.
  8. Words describing quantities are kept as singular, because even if they are describing large numbers of objects, there is only one quantity. So you would write, the amount is enormous.
  9. For some words, you get to keep it simple, and the plural is the same as the singular. Common examples are fruit, sheep and fish.
  10. It can be very hard to know what to do when combining apostrophes with plurals. I could write a whole blog post on that. It’s usually s with an apostrophe and no second s after the apostrophe. For decades, you just add an s with no apostrophe, so it’s 1970s, not 1970’s.

What unusual plural forms have you come across? What plural forms tend to cause you the most confusion? Share them here and we’ll get to the bottom of the mystery together.

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