English plurals: of mice and mouses
Words index  Vivian Cook

English nouns usually have both singular and plural forms. The usual ‘regular’ plural is spelled with ‘s’ books or ‘es’ batches and pronounced as ‘s’ chairs, as ‘z’ times or as ‘iz’ grasses. But quite a few words have irregular plural forms. The reason is often the language that they originally came from; sometimes English has kept the original plural, sometimes it has created English plurals.

- Latin is one key source, dating back to the period when it was the language of the educated. Stimulus/stimuli and larva/larva have kept the Latin plurals. Crocus is still in the process of switching over from croci to crocuses, as are gladiolus and fungus. Area and drama have completed the switch to English plurals areas and dramas.

- Greek had a similar impact through academic words: crisis/crises and phenomenon/phenomena. Many of these now only have English plurals like electron/electrons.

- French contributed some words where the plural is spelled as ‘x’ but pronounced as ‘z’, bureaux, adieux, though many words have made the switch completely such as plateau/plateaus .

- Old English plural forms survived more or less intact in a handful of words: children, oxen, brethren. This is usually also the source of plurals with consonant changes half/halves, or with vowel changes woman/women and foot/feet, or when nothing changes like sheep.

When a word with an irregular plural is used in a new meaning, however, it often takes a regular plural. So while leaves is the usual plural of leaf, the Toronto hockey team is called the Maple Leafs, a tea in Taiwan is called Leafs and a Swedish band is called Fallen Leafs. The usual plural for computer mouse must be computer mouses; mice gives a strange image of little creatures dashing about the mouse-pad.

This has provided an important source of data for psycholinguists to resolve the debate over whether the mind knows a few rules (‘Make plurals by adding ‘s’) or thousands of examples (‘Plurals are; ‘books, mice, batches, men, …’’). Steven Pinker uses them to show that our knowledge of language must actually involve both; we won’t get very far if we don’t know how to make plurals, say for new words – ‘one wug’, ‘two…’?; but we still need to remember a few hundred one-off plurals like ‘schemata’ or ‘crises’. In other words he insists on a dual component view of language made up of both rules and instances.  

Related pages: function & structure words pronouns collocations