Word Count

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Why Do We Say "Oxen" And Not "Oxes"?

Mignon Fogarty, better known as her alter ego Grammar Girl, has been sharing a series of short tips on usage and style. In her latest installment, she explains why the plural of the word ox is oxen instead of oxes.

Why do a few words take -en instead of -s or -es to become plural?

You may have heard that English is a Germanic language. The -en ending on plurals is something we get from our German roots. In Old English, some nouns were made plural with -s and -es as they are today, but many nouns took -en to become plural.

The s-form plurals became dominant in northern England first, while the en-form hung on in southern England. By the 14th century the s-form became dominant everywhere, but people didn't let go of the en-form completely; as late as the 16th century the plural of eye was eyen and the plural of hose was hosen. Today only a few en-forms survive; the most common are oxen and children.

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Mignon Fogarty is better known as Grammar Girl. She is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, author of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and the creator of the iOS game Grammar Pop. She is also the Donald W. Reynolds Chair of Media Entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism and Advanced Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Click here to read more articles by Mignon Fogarty.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 24th 2014, 6:06 AM
Comment by: Neil C.
And, of course, another Germanic way of forming plurals is by vowel change, as in mouse -> mice, man -> men, woman -> women (double vowel change, in fact, but not reflected in the spelling!), goose -> geese etc.
Thursday July 24th 2014, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Ray S.
Sometimes two or more plurals of the same word have existed at the same time. English was in flux in the late 15th century, sometimes causing heartburn for writers and editors, including the English diplomat, writer, translator, and pioneering printer William Caxton:

"Because of the diversity of English regional dialects at this time, and the changing nature of the language, it was difficult for Caxton to choose which words to use in his translations. Caxton tells the story of some merchants from the North of England trying to buy eggs from a woman in the South of England. The northerner uses the word egges, derived from Old Norse, but the Southern woman, who uses the word eyren from the Old English, does not understand. A humorous misunderstanding ensues."

Wednesday September 17th 2014, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Mary C A.
Both oxen and oxes exist in Scrabble, so I looked for the plural of the word ox. Dictionary.com lists oxen for two and oxes for three or more. No, I will not let this consume my day so you only get one dictionary and one game.

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