Sunday, 4 November 2012

Plural is Singular ….

….. but singulars is plural. I’m talking about the words ‘plural’ and ‘singular’, of course.

The question of odd plurals came to light when looking at the origins of place names and I discovered a dialect word ‘housen’, used until comparatively recently (at least as Old English goes) for the plural of ‘house’. I once overheard an animated debate concerning words ending in –ouse and their plurals. One pointed out that mouse became mice, and louse became lice, and therefore house should be ‘hice’ and not houses. After five minutes of this I, being distracted from the book I was supposed to be reading, suggested they settle their dispute by asking the ‘Scise’. Two blank stares and one “Humph!” and I was alone once more.

It does not follow that a word ending in –ouse always have a plural ending in –ice. Neither does –oo- always have to become –ee- simply because there is more than one as is the case with foot and feet, goose and geese, which is why moose becomes mooses. The same follows for the American idea that because the plural of locus is loci and radius is radii, this is not true of hippopotamuses, octopuses, and platypuses all the correct plurals.

On the other hand there are words which are both singular and plural – deer, offspring, series, species, and fish. Note there is a word ‘fishes’, but this is used when referring to the number of kinds of fish and not a number of individuals.

Finally I recall having a report read out loud to me some years ago. The passage which sticks in my mind contained the word read as ‘passerbys’. Later, knowing the person reading it was more than capable of making this mistake, I sneaked a look at the Daily Drivel (I shall refrain from naming and shaming) to discover they had indeed used ‘passerbys’ as the plural of ‘passerby’ and not ‘passersby’.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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