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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2009年) What Is the Plural of Scissors? (January 16, 2009)

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Grammar Girl here.

Today’s topic is when plurals have no singular.

A listener named Brent called in with this question: "I have a question: how come pants, trousers, slacks, corduroys are all plurals even though there is only one of them?"

Guest writer Sal Glynn writes:

Nouns are sociable. They like to be more than singular. A tooth hangs out with teeth, a matrix is bored without the company of matrices, and a crisis can’t wait to mingle with other crises. Even proper nouns that are the names of places and people enjoy being a few instead of one:

“There are too many Henriks in this boat for my taste,” said Daphne.

But in every community there is the exception, and a plural noun may refuse to be singular (1) like those in Brent's examples. This type of nouns is known as a defective noun, also called a plurale tantum. The appearance of these words is more the effect of time on language than the fault of lexicographers. Besides occurring in English, defective nouns also occur in Arabic, Greek, and Latin.

Is There a Singular Form for Measles?

Let's start with the measles, the name for the nasty childhood illness that's caused unknown days of missed schooling, comes from the Middle English mesele (2).That was the name given to the red circle characteristic of the highly contagious disease. But since the mesele rarely showed up as one, its plural came into use and shoved out the singular. Measles is a noun that can take a singular or a plural verb. You could say, “Measles is caused by a virus,” or “The measles are making Daphne crazy.”

Scissors Or Scissor?

On to scissors! The Latin had it right when this cutting tool was called the "ciscoria," with a "c," which meant "cutting instrument." Sometime in the 16th century, the word started being spelled with an "s" instead of a "c" ("sisours"), because it became confused or intermingled with the Latin word "scissor" (with an "s" like we spell it today), which means "tailor." You can call the two-bladed cutting tool simply scissors or you can call it a pair of scissors.

Why is Pants Plural?

And finally getting to Brent's question, what about pants? According to "Esquire Magazine" (3), the stylish man calls them “trousers,” the unstylish man calls them “slacks,” the antiquated and most likely extinguished man calls them “breeches,” and the indifferent man calls them “pants.” The word "pants" originated in the French “pantaloon,” meaning tights, and comes from the character named “Pantaloun” in a sixteenth century Italian comedy. Pantaloun was a ridiculous old man who wore tight pants to show off his skinny legs. How this happened is anyone’s guess. Going back even further, Pantaleone [pan-ta-le-on-e] is from the Greek and means “all-compassionate.” (I think my guest writer Sal is trying to punish me with all the foreign words in this episode. I apologize, because I'm sure I've mispronounced at least some of them.)

Sometime in 1840, pantaloon became pants and has been plural ever since. Cut a pair of pants in half and you have a wrecked pair of pants. There can be a pant leg, but pants remain pants. The phrase, “to fly by the seat of your pants” comes from World War II, when pilots monitored the condition of their planes by the engine vibrations coming through their pants.

Now that you understand how to use measles, scissors, and pants, remember the quick and dirty tip is that defective nouns are the same whether you're talking about one or a hundred of them and they are the way they are because of quirks in the way words evolve through the ages.

That's all. Thanks for listening.

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