Episode 135: September 16, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today’s topic is irregular plural nouns, odd nouns such as “ox” and “oxen.”
Robbie from Keene, New Hampshire, called in with this question:
One of my friends knows that I'm kind of geeky and into grammar and was asking me about adding the 's' onto words to make [them] plural but in the same question came up with the question about words like 'moose' and 'mice' and 'ox' and a goose--how all of those aren't formed into the plural by adding the 's.' And I was wondering if you can give any insight? Is there any rhyme or reason into this? Is it only animals that we don't to have to add an 's' on to make it plural?
Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga answers:
Robbie made me laugh when he placed a follow-up call asking me to imagine pluralizing all these words like the word "oxen": "goosen," "micen," and "moosen." Very funny. Perhaps we would say some plurals that way if we were all still speaking Old English. More on that in a minute.
In modern English, most of the time we make a noun plural by adding an “-s.” So the plural of “animal” is “animals.” Robbie, on the other hand, is asking about irregular plurals, and we’re going to delve a bit into the history of English as we learn about three irregular types of plural noun. Many irregular plurals in English do seem to be animal names, but odd plurals aren't limited to animals.
Plurals Derived from an Old English Form
The first group of irregular nouns we’ll discuss derive from an obsolete form in Old English. “Ox” and “oxen” fall into this category. Old English is a West Germanic language that was spoken and written in parts of what are now England and southern Scotland between the mid-5th and mid-12th centuries (1). “Beowulf” was written in this language.
If someone from a thousand years ago traveled through time to visit us, we certainly wouldn’t understand each other, but as modern English evolved, it retained some elements of Old English. So we can blame Old English for the plural noun “oxen.” Only two other plural nouns in modern English end this way: “children” and “brethren.” Some other nouns, such as “eye,” “house,” and “hose,” used to be pluralized in a similar way, but the plural forms “eyen,” “housen,” and “hosen” are now dialectic or obsolete (2).
Seeing this word “hosen” reminded me of the German word “lederhosen,” which has a similar plural ending as these obsolete words. I’ve always known that English has many roots, including Germanic ones, but I haven’t actually studied German. The site I perused to learn about German plural nouns tells me there are a dozen different ways that German nouns can form the plural, one of which is “-en” (3).
The second group of plurals we’ll talk about are mutants, which also have Old English roots (4). Examples are “foot,” “goose,” “woman,” and “louse,” which become “feet,” “geese,” “women,” and “lice.” Again we turn to German for an explanation of why they're pluralized this way.
You form these mutated plurals simply by changing the vowel sound of the singular, in a process called “umlaut” (5). An umlaut is that little two-dot symbol you sometimes see on German vowels, but what we’re talking about here is a different meaning of the word. The process of umlaut is a technical linguistics concept (6). All we need to know for our purposes is that mutated plurals are in fact quite rare in modern English. Other examples are “man” and “men,” “mouse” and mice,” and “tooth” and “teeth.”
Note that the American Heritage Dictionary says when you're talking about a computer mouse, the plural can be either “mice” or “mouses.”
Plurals That Are the Same As the Singulars
Our etymology lesson is over but we have one more type of plural noun to cover. These are nouns whose singular and plural forms are the same, such as “deer,” “fish,” “moose,” “sheep,” and “swine.” They are a kind of collective noun, which I covered in an earlier show. As you can tell, these nouns seem to be all animal names, so Robbie was partly right. These nouns don’t have the normal plural ending because we think of them as a group, as in “Six fish are in the aquarium.” However, you can pluralize “fish” in the normal way if you want to describe multiple individuals, for example, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style uses the example “Half a dozen fishes inhabit the lake” (7). However, you wouldn’t say, “fishes” very often unless you’re talking in scientific terms.
I didn’t know that irregular plural nouns could be so interesting. If you want to learn more about Old English or the umlaut process, see the links at the bottom of this transcript.
No Firm Rules
Although I had started out hoping to find a pattern that would help Robbie understand why certain words take strange plurals, the real answer is that the occasional odd plurals are just random holdovers from Old English or are examples of collective nouns. The bottom line is that they are just the way they are, and people who are learning English simply have to memorize the strange plurals just as they would irregular verbs. Sorry!