Grammar Gremlins: Puzzling Plurals

Recently I went out with a friend for some retail therapy. She bought shoes and a purse; I bought earrings. Four pair of earrings. Or was it four pairs? When I began to email another friend about it, I realized I wasn’t at all sure.


gremlin-2The consensus appears to be four pairs, with four pair (which in all honestly was my own first choice) essentially the older form, preferred a century or so ago (and no, I’m not that old). The word pair itself leads us into an almost never-ending discussion of singular versus plural. In a pair of poodles, for example, you have one pair, but two dogs, while in a pair of jeans, you have one pair and one piece of clothing, albeit with two legs. A few other singular items are usually referred to as pairs: scissors, tweezers, eyeglasses, pants and trousers, although pant and trouser as singular nouns pop up now and then in high-fashion advertising.


Is pair itself singular or plural? It’s hard to find a definitive answer to this one, but it appears to depend on context. Is the pair in question one unit or two? A pair of trousers is on the bed, while that pair of poodles are on the bed. A pair of tweezers is on the bathroom counter; a pair of combs are nearby.


The irregularities of the English language must be enough to drive any ESL student bananas (why bananas? Why not oranges, or grapefruit?). If the plural of mouse is mice, and the plural of louse is lice, why isn’t the plural of spouse spice? (Old joke, true mystery.) Then we have one fox and two foxes, one ox and two oxen, one lox and . . . Well, as far as I can tell lox is just lox, singular or plural (but it sneaked into English from Yiddish, so it may not count).


Here’s one I’ve had to look up from time to time, because it looks, well, funny. What is the plural of bus? At one time it was busses, but these days it’s buses, perhaps because the plural of the much older word buss (meaning kiss) is also busses. No bussing allowed at the bus stop!


Then there are the words ending in x, which often have two acceptable plurals: appendixes or appendices, indexes or indices, vortexes or vortices. Interestingly, Word recognizes all six plurals as correct, while Scrivener rejects indices and vortices.


Sometimes you have to figure out which word is the noun: attorneys general are attorneys and surgeons general are doctors (general is the adjective), while major generals are generals (major is the adjective). If you’re married (or have a married sibling), you probably have in-laws, relatives by marriage. But among those in-laws, you may have sisters-in-law (not sister-in-laws) or brothers-in-law.


The best explanation I found for compound nouns is to pluralize the element that changes number: in the examples above, the attorneys and surgeons, the sisters and brothers. In the same way, we have heirs apparent and senators-elect. One passerby, two passersby, one notebook, two notebooks.


There are always exceptions, of course, and most sources create the plurals of wordsgremlin-3 ending in ful by adding a final s: mouthfuls, eyefuls, handfuls. Teaspoonsful, cupsful, bucketsful, and so on (which make more sense to me) are also acceptable, but not preferred (Scrivener doesn’t like them, and neither does Word).


In short (if short is possible: The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers devotes six pages to irregular plurals), if adding s or es doesn’t do the trick (or sets off your spell checker), look in the dictionary: the big, fat book over there on the shelf, or the handy one in your computer.


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