Everything you need to know about plurals

This week, Catriona Tippin aka @ProofReadingTip tells us all about plurals...

 Apophonic plurals

[From Greek apo- ‘off’ and –phonia ‘sound’]

These are old words with a mutated vowel to indicate the plural: 


Here are some interesting anomalies: 

mongoose – plural mongooses, not mongeese 

louse –  a conventional plural as in these lyrics: “He's your guy when stocks are high but beware when they start to descend It's then that those louses go back to their spouses Diamonds are a girl's best friend” - scansion, an alternative meaning for louse and a different plural form. Boom tish. 

mouse – there is an ongoing debate on this but I’m confident mouses is winning as the plural for the cursor controlling device. Mice is too redolent of rodents. Luckily it’s unlikely your work in progress is going to need more than one cursor controlling device at a time. 

Anglo Saxon / Old English plurals 

A few more old words with mutated plurals: 


Something to remember with all these irregular plurals is apostrophe usage: 
children’s books (not childrens’ books) 
People’s Palace (not Peoples’ Palace) 

Identical singulars/plurals  

More old words, these have connotations of abundance and/or hunting:


Fish can have the plural form fishes, usually to describe a collection of species - “An illustrated guide to freshwater fishes” or for dramatic effect - “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” 

Pluaralia tantum (from Latin ‘plurals only’) 
These words only have a plural form and refer to things which function as pairs or sets: 


Interestingly, we sometimes use singular forms of these words when they are used as adjectives: scissor kick, scissor blade, trouser leg, trouser press 

 Evolving plurals 
Here’s a quote from linguist Prof Steven Pinker, “Whenever a collection of individual things is conceptualised as a single gestalt, the plural for that collection can cease to feel like a plural, and the language can change”. 

True that. Agenda, data, graffiti, media and panini are all strictly plural forms but are now used as singulars too. 

Some Latin/Greek/foreign words with specific plural forms have evolved to have conventional plurals, for instance: 

There are hypercorrect classical plurals for these, but they are falling out of use. 

Avoid classical plurals and avoid classical mistakes. Octopus has acquired a dodgy plural octopi. Latin words can have that ‘i’ plural, but octopus is Greek, and it’s a plural as is. Sometimes it’s best to avoid controversy – use hippos, rhinos, etc. 

 Here are three words with classical roots that have different plurals depending on meaning:

Antenna has antennae (insect headgear) and antennas (electronic conductors/aerials). Index has indexes (A-Z) and indices (maths).
Phalanx has phalanges (finger and toe bones) or phalanxes (troops in close formation).

Look out for these words, they are most often encountered in their plural form, but have appropriate singular forms (still in use so far): 


Plurals for words ending ‘o’ 

Most words ending ‘o’ just need ‘s’ for plural purposes, but remember ‘es’ for a select few including: 

Words of foreign origin ending ’o’ (that is, of more recent origin than sixteenth century tomatoes and potatoes) – these take just an ‘s’: banjos, calypsos, chinos

So do short bits of longer words ending ‘o’: memos, photos, pianos and words ending in two vowels - cameos, studios, videos, zoos

Abbreviations, acronyms and dates – don’t need apostrophes when turning into plurals:

MPs, UFOs, 1900s, 1980s 

  Unusual compound nouns

A few compound nouns have irregular plural forms, with ‘s’ needed on the first word. Most are unlikely to feature in your work in progress (attorneys general, procurators fiscal) but there are also runners up and works of art. 

Keep an eye on your in-laws – in written English they are mothers-in-law, sons-in-law, etc not mother-in-laws, son-in-laws, etc. 

Plural compound nouns of French origin follow French rules: fleurs-de-lys, faits accomplis, bon mots.

Plurals and agreement in sentence structure 

Remember plural subjects that function as a single subject usually take a singular verb. You have some discretion here, go for ‘what sounds natural’: The United States is a nation, the Philippines is a nation, the Netherlands is a nation… but the Hebrides are a group of islands. 

 Nouns joined by ‘and’ 

Another case of ‘what sounds natural’: 

Fish & chips is my favourite 
Rhythm & blues is playing on the radio and… 
Words & Pictures is a year old!

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for two national educational charities, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary). 


  1. Catriona, so interesting and really helpful for me - this post mops up a lot of my grey areas!

    1. Glad you found it useful, I've just come across another classical plural - according to Alan Partridge the plural of Lexus is Lexi - who knew?

  2. Writing in its finest sense is more than just playing around with words to express one's views, opinions or objectively shout out product or service descriptions. Before a piece of writing can reach the hearts and minds of critically acclaimed audience, the grammar must first be flawlessly perfect. sentence check


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