Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Plurals That Are Singular

English presents many challenges to its students, but forming plurals isn't one of them. There are common exceptions like child/children, mouse/mice, foot/feet (etc.), but in general, you won't often go wrong by just following the add -s or -es rule.

A greater challenge comes from mastering the set of words that look plural but act singular. Their syntactic behavior is less predictable and harder to lasso into explanatory rules. Is there rhyme or reason for this? Let's look at a couple of the classes of these words and see if any light emerges.

First, there is the class of words ending in -ic or -ics that in some cases are treated as singulars, despite an -ics ending, but in other cases we treat the -ics form of the word as a plural noun. Is there a predictable way of keeping the words sorted into their proper boxes?

Not really, and here it is good to keep in mind the classic observation of H. W. Fowler that relations among words "come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble and plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped or overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could."

In earlier English, most of these words (all of Greek and/or Latin origin) were written without an s ending, though instead of -ic they may have been spelled with -ique (following French), or -ik or -ike (following a more nativist approach to spelling). Here's a sample from early English books:

But long before our time, it was decided that arithmetic, logic, magic, music, and rhetoric (to list some of the common -ic singular nouns denoting broad subjects) would remain so, while others, beginning with treatises on the subjects and then generally extended to subject matters themselves, would take a plural form, but singular in construction: as in acoustics, dynamics, ethics, linguistics, metaphysics, optics, and many others. But things that you do (as opposed to things that you study) are typically plural in form as well as in construction: acrobatics, calisthenics, gymnastics, politics, tactics.

Confused? Contemporary use of optics presents a good case of the distinction. If you say optics is you're probably talking about the branch of physical science that deals with light and vision. If you say optics are you're probably talking about the way in which an event or activity is perceived by the public, as in this clipping from a contemporary news story:

The NCAA itself negotiates billion-dollar media rights and signs lucrative corporate sponsorships. Meanwhile, athletes' compensation is capped despite that free scholarship. The optics are not good.

The distinction between "action of" and "subject of", along with the different verb forms they select, is sometimes presented in dictionaries, like this one from Random House Unabridged.

Another class of words that have a plural look and feel but somewhat unpredictable syntactic behavior are pathological, abnormal, or undesirable conditions: measles, megrims (archaic), mumps, the bends, rickets, the blues, jitters, heebie-jeebies, vapors (archaic), yaws. Do you have an instinctive feel for whether these want a singular or plural verb? Does their behavior conform to a rule?

Some of these words have a frequentative or plural aspect in the experience of them. You probably don't get a single bend, jitter or measle, and you probably would never refer to them in this way. There's long precedent in English for this pattern, where the noun of instance is singular and can be so identified (hiccup, shake, sneeze), but the affliction of an attack is plural with a plural verb form (hiccups, shakes, sneezes). Most of the nouns in this group probably prefer a plural verb. It would be odd to say My hiccups is driving me crazy.

But before we take comfort in this observation, consider the poxes. What's a pox? It's a disease characterized by multiple skin pustules, as smallpox or chickenpox. Whence this word pox? It is a plural of pock (a pustule, mark, or spot on the skin), which would more logically be pluralized as pocks. Measles is a pox, and we can call an individual manifestation of it a measle, just as we can identify an individual freckle as evidence of the condition freckles. We say measles/chickenpox/smallpox is, but we say freckles are. Is it because the first three are pathological and the fourth is not? Hard to say what the governing rule is here, if there is one

Consider mumps. It occasionally affects only one side of the body, but we don't then call it mump even though the word is derived by adding -s to a now obsolete word mump.

Left: mumps (or is it just a mump?), from the CDC health image library, via wikipedia. Right: rickets,

Rickets is a word of uncertain origin, and the OED etymology of it explores the subject in detail, speculating about half a dozen possible derivations, of which none is a clear case of pluralization. So let's not even consider what ricket might denote. Rickets just seems to fit into a comfortable pattern of afflictions that look plural but act singular.

If you are feeling blue (who wouldn't be after all this?), you have the blues. But if you are green with envy, you don't have the greens, nor do you have the reds if you're red hot, whether it be with anger or desire. But you might have the hots for someone. Whether I have the blues or the hots, I think I would want a plural verb form. Better yet, I might opt for ain't, a number-neutral verb form that eliminates the problem: "The blues ain't nothin' but a pain in your heart." (lyric from "Lady Sings the Blues," by Billie Holiday and William Dufty.)

Years ago, when I became an East Coaster (specifically, Boston) for the first time in my life, I heard someone use the term hunger horrors to describe hunger arising at inopportune times. Is it a regionalism? Would it select a singular or a plural verb form? The term gets only 300+ hits on Google and UrbanDictionary doesn't even have a definition, so I wonder if its usage is quite localized. But the appearance of the -s on the end of horror suggests to me that English speakers, following the examples of many other abnormal conditions, are comfortable coining new ones that look and feel like plurals. Whether they choose to use a singular or plural verb form doesn't seem to answer to an easily formulated rule. Is this true in any other languages?

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.