Plural Noun Forms
The plural form of most nouns is created simply by adding the letter s.
- more than one snake = snakes
- more than one ski = skis
- more than one Barrymore = Barrymores
Words that end in -ch, x, s or s-like sounds, however, will require an -es for the plural:
- more than one witch = witches
- more than one box = boxes
- more than one gas = gases
- more than one bus = buses
- more than one kiss = kisses
- more than one Jones = Joneses
Note that some dictionaries list “busses” as an acceptable plural for “bus.” Presumably, this is because the plural “buses” looks like it ought to rhyme with the plural of “fuse,” which is “fuses.” “Buses” is still listed as the preferable plural form. “Busses” is the plural, of course, for “buss,” a seldom used word for “kiss.”
There are several nouns that have irregular plural forms. Plurals formed in this way are sometimes called mutated (or mutating) plurals.
- more than one child = children
- more than one woman = women
- more than one man = men
- more than one person = people
- more than one goose = geese
- more than one mouse = mice
- more than one barracks = barracks
- more than one deer = deer
And, finally, there are nouns that maintain their Latin or Greek form in the plural. (See media and data and alumni, below.)
- more than one nucleus = nuclei
- more than one syllabus = syllabi
- more than one focus = foci
- more than one fungus = fungi
- more than one cactus = cacti (cactuses is acceptable)
- more than one thesis = theses
- more than one crisis = crises*
- more than one phenomenon = phenomena
- more than one index = indices (indexes is acceptable)
- more than one appendix = appendices (appendixes is acceptable)
- more than one criterion = criteria
*Note the pronunciation of this word, crises: the second syllable sounds like ease. More than one base in the game of baseball is bases, but more than one basis for an argument, say, is also bases, and then we pronounce the word basease.
A handful of nouns appear to be plural in form but take a singular verb:
- The news is bad.
- Gymnastics is fun to watch.
- Economics/mathematics/statistics is said to be difficult. (“Economics” can sometimes be a plural concept, as in “The economics of the situation demand that . . . .”)
Numerical expressions are usually singular, but can be plural if the individuals within a numerical group are acting individually:
- Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money.
- One-half of the faculty is retiring this summer.
- One-half of the faculty have doctorates.
- Fifty percent of the students have voted already.
And another handful of nouns might seem to be singular in nature but take a plural form and always use a plural verb:
- My pants are torn. (Nowadays you will sometimes see this word as a singular “pant” [meaning one pair of pants] especially in clothing ads, but most writers would regard that as an affectation.)
- Her scissors were stolen.
- The glasses have slipped down his nose again.
When a noun names the title of something or is a word being used as a word, it is singular whether the word takes a singular form or not.
- Faces is the name of the new restaurant downtown.
- Okies, which most people regard as a disparaging word, was first used to describe the residents of Oklahoma during the 1930s.
- Chelmsley Brothers is the best moving company in town.
- Postcards is my favorite novel.
- The term Okies was used to describe the residents of Oklahoma during the 1930s. (In this sentence, the word Okies is actually an appositive for the singular subject, “term.”)
Plural Compound Nouns
Compound words create special problems when we need to pluralize them. As a general rule, the element within the compound that word that is pluralized will receive the plural -s, but it’s not always that simple. Daughters-in-law follows the general rule, but cupfuls does not. See the special section on Compound Nouns and Modifiers or, better yet, a good dictionary, for additional help.
Many careful writers insist that the words data and media are Latin plurals and must, therefore, be used as plural words. The singular Latin forms of these words, however, are seldom used: datum as a single bit of information or medium as a single means of communication. Many authorities nowadays approve sentences like My data is lost. and The media is out to get the President. Even textbooks in computer science are beginning to use “data” as a singular.
Alumni and alumnae remain problematic. The plural of masculine singular alumnus is alumni; the plural of feminine singular alumna is alumnae. In traditional Latin, the masculine plural form, alumni, could include both genders. This does not go over well with some female alums. We note, furthermore, that Vassar College, which now has both, has lists of alumni and alumnae. Hartford College for Women, we assume, has only alumnae. In its publication style manual, Wesleyan University approves of alumni/ae. The genderless graduate and the truncated and informal alum have much to commend them.
With words that end in a consonant and a y, you’ll need to change the y to an i and add es.
- more than one baby = babies
- more than one gallery = galleries
(Notice the difference between this and galleys, where the final y is not preceded by a consonant.)
- more than one reality = realities
This rule does not apply to proper nouns:
- more than one Kennedy = Kennedys
Words that end in o create special problems.
- more than one potato = potatoes
- more than one hero = heroes
. . . however . . .
- more than one memo = memos
- more than one cello = cellos
. . . and for words where another vowel comes before the o . . .
- more than one stereo = stereos
Plurals of words that end in -f or -fe usually change the f sound to a v sound and add s or -es.
- more than one knife = knives
- more than one leaf = leaves
- more than one hoof = hooves
- more than one life = lives
- more than one self = selves
- more than one elf = elves
There are, however, exceptions:
- more than one dwarf = dwarfs
- more than one roof = roofs
When in doubt, as always, consult a dictionary. Some dictionaries, for instance, will list both wharfs and wharves as acceptable plural forms of wharf. It makes for good arguments when you’re playing Scrabble. The online version of Merriam-Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary should help.
Collective Nouns, Company Names,
Family Names, Sports Teams
There are, further, so called collective nouns, which are singular when we think of them as groups and plural when we think of the individuals acting within the whole (which happens sometimes, but not often).
Thus, if we’re talking about eggs, we could say “A dozen is probably not enough.” But if we’re talking partying with our friends, we could say, “A dozen are coming over this afternoon.” The jury delivers its verdict. [But] The jury came in and took their seats. We could say the Tokyo String Quartet is one of the best string ensembles in the world, but we could say the Beatles were some of the most famous singers in history. Generally, band names and musical groups take singular or plural verbs depending on the form of their names: “The Mamas and the Papas were one of the best groups of the 70s” and “Metallica is my favorite band.”
Note that “the number” is a singular collective noun. “The number of applicants is steadily increasing.” “A number,” on the other hand, is a plural form: “There are several students in the lobby. A number are here to see the president.”
Collective nouns are count nouns which means they, themselves, can be pluralized: a university has several athletic teams and classes. And the immigrant families kept watch over their herds and flocks.
The word following the phrase one of the (as an object of the preposition of) will always be plural.
- One of the reasons we do this is that it rains a lot in spring.
- One of the students in this room is responsible.
Notice, though, that the verb (“is”) agrees with one, which is singular, and not with the object of the preposition, which is always plural.
When a family name (a proper noun) is pluralized, we almost always simply add an “s.” So we go to visit the Smiths, the Kennedys, the Grays, etc.When a family name ends in s, x, ch, sh, or z, however, we form the plural by added -es, as in the Marches, the Joneses, the Maddoxes, the Bushes, the Rodriguezes. Do not form a family name plural by using an apostrophe; that device is reserved for creating possessive forms.
When a proper noun ends in an “s” with a hard “z” sound, we don’t add any ending to form the plural: “The Chambers are coming to dinner” (not the Chamberses); “The Hodges used to live here” (not the Hodgeses). There are exceptions even to this: we say “The Joneses are coming over,” and we’d probably write “The Stevenses are coming, too.” A modest proposal: women whose last names end in “s” (pronounced “z”) should marry and take the names of men whose last names do not end with that sound, and eventually this problem will disappear.
The names of companies and other organizations are usually regarded as singular, regardless of their ending: “General Motors has announced its fall lineup of new vehicles.” Try to avoid the inconsistency that is almost inevitable when you think of corporate entities as a group of individuals: “General Motors has announced their fall lineup of new vehicles.” But note that some inconsistency is acceptable in all but the most formal writing: “Ford has announced its breakup with Firestone Tires. Their cars will no longer use tires built by Firestone.” Some writers will use a plural verb when a plural construction such as “Associates” is part of the company’s title or when the title consists of a series of names: “Upton, Vernon, and Gridley are moving to new law offices next week” or “Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego & Associates have won all their cases this year.” Singular verbs and pronouns would be correct in those sentences, also.
The names of sports teams, on the other hand, are treated as plurals, regardless of the form of that name. We would write that “The Yankees have signed a new third baseman” and “The Yankees are a great organization” (even if we’re Red Sox fans) and that “For two years in a row, the Utah Jazz have attempted to draft a big man.” When we refer to a team by the city in which it resides, however, we use the singular, as in “Dallas has attempted to secure the services of two assistant coaches that Green Bay hopes to keep.” (This is decidedly not a British practice. In the UK, the city or country names by which British newspapers refer to soccer teams, for example, are used as plurals — a practice that seems odd and inconsistent to American ears: “A minute’s silence will precede the game at Le Stadium today, when Toulouse play Munster, and tomorrow at Lansdowne Road, when Leinster attempt to reach their first European final by beating Perpignan” [report in the online London Times].)In a rare dictum-making mood, William Safire (in No Uncertain Terms, 2003) declares that pluralized names like Packers and Yankees should take plural verbs (obviously), but that team names like the Jazz, the Heat, the Lightning, the Connecticut Sun should take singular verbs. This dictum seems to prevail in Safire’s own New York Times: “The [Miami] Heat, typical of its resilience at home, was far from through. ” But just about everywhere else in the world of sports reporting, this is not the case. Even in the Times, an AP report asserts that “The Heat, down 2-0 in the East Conference semifinal series, have won 16 straight home games.” The Boston Globe says that “the [New England] Revolution are reestablishing their reputation for resourcefulness and spirited play.” and “the Heat were in it in the first half.” The Hartford Courant writes that “When the Connecticut Sun play an exhibition game tonight in Houston, coach Mike Thibault will have two more players.” Finally, NBA Media Ventures writes that “The Utah Jazz were expected to follow the rebuilding mode… .” [All quotations are from May 10th and 20th, 2004, online sources.)
Plurals and Apostrophes
We use an apostrophe to create plural forms in two limited situations: for pluralized letters of the alphabet and when we are trying to create the plural form of a word that refers to the word itself. Here we also should italicize this “word as word,” but not the ‘s ending that belongs to it. Do not use the apostrophe+s to create the plural of acronyms (pronounceable abbreviations such as laser and IRA and URL*) and other abbreviations. (A possible exception to this last rule is an acronym that ends in “S”: “We filed four NOS’s in that folder.”)
- Jeffrey got four A’s on his last report card.
- Towanda learned very quickly to mind her p’s and q’s.
- You have fifteen and’s in that last paragraph.
Notice that we do not use an apostrophe -s to create the plural of a word-in-itself. For instance, we would refer to the “ins and outs” of a mystery, the “yeses and nos” of a vote (NYPL Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage), and we assume that Theodore Bernstein knew what he was talking about in his book Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. We would also write “The shortstop made two spectacular outs in that inning.” But when we refer to a word-as-a-word, we first italicize it — I pointed out the use of the word out in that sentence. — and if necessary, we pluralize it by adding the unitalicized apostrophe -s — “In his essay on prepositions, Jose used an astonishing three dozen out’s.” This practice is not universally followed, and in newspapers, you would find our example sentence written without italics or apostrophe: “You have fifteen ands in that last paragraph.”
Some abbreviations have embedded plural forms, and there are often inconsistencies in creating the plurals of these words. The speed of an internal combustion engine is measured in “revolutions per minute” or rpm (lower case) and the efficiency of an automobile is reported in “miles per gallon” or mpg (no “-s” endings). On the other hand, baseball players love to accumulate “runs batted in,” a statistic that is usually reported as RBIs (although it would not be terribly unusual to hear that someone got 100 RBI last year — and some baseball commentators will talk about “ribbies,” too). Also, the U.S. military provides “meals ready to eat” and those rations are usually described as MREs (not MRE). When an abbreviation can be used to refer to a singular thing — a run batted in, a meal ready-to-eat, a prisoner of war — it’s surely a good idea to form the plural by adding “s” to the abbreviation: RBIs, MREs, POWs. (Notice that no apostrophe is involved in the formation of these plurals. Whether abbreviations like these are formed with upper- or lower-case letters is a matter of great mystery; only your dictionary editor knows for sure.)
Notice, furthermore, that we do not use an apostrophe to create plurals in the following:
- The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
- I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
- Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from Harvard.
- She has over 400 URLs* in her bookmark file.
Authority for this last paragraph: Keys for Writers: A Brief Handbook by Ann Raimes. Houghton Mifflin: New York. 1996.
Singular Subjects, Plural Predicates, etc.
We frequently run into a situation in which a singular subject is linked to a plural predicate:
- My favorite breakfast is cereal with fruit, milk, orange juice, and toast.
Sometimes, too, a plural subject can be linked to singular predicate:
- Mistakes in parallelism are the only problem here.
In such situations, remember that the number (singular or plural) of the subject, not the predicate, determines the number of the verb.
A special situation exists when a subject seems not to agree with its predicate. For instance, when we want each student to see his or her counselor (and each student is assigned to only one counselor), but we want to avoid that “his or her” construction by pluralizing, do we say “Students must see their counselors” or “Students must see their counselor”? The singular counselor is necesssary to avoid the implication that students have more than one counselor apiece. Do we say “Many sons dislike their father or fathers”? We don’t mean to suggest that the sons have more than one father, so we use the singular father. Theodore Bernstein, in Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, says that “Idiomatically the noun applying to more than one person remains in the singular when (a) it represents a quality or thing possessed in common (“The audience’s curiosity was aroused”); or (b) it is an abstraction (“The judges applied their reason to the problem”), or (c) it is a figurative word (“All ten children had a sweet tooth”) (203). Sometimes good sense will have to guide you. We might want to say “Puzzled, the children scratched their head” to avoid the image of multi-headed children, but “The audience rose to their foot” is plainly ridiculous and about to tip over.
In “The boys moved their car/cars,” the plural would indicate that each boy owned a car, the singular that the boys (together) owned one car (which is quite possible). It is also possible that each boy owned more than one car. Be prepared for such situations, and consider carefully the implications of using either the singular or the plural. You might have to avoid the problem by going the opposite direction of pluralizing: moving things to the singular and talking about what each boy did.