12 nouns that are always plurals
If you, like me, are a half-ashamed watcher of various fashion reality shows, you might be familiar with phrases like I’d like to pair this with a navy pant or Maybe a smoky eye and a red lip. There is an assumption of an implied plural when the singular versions of these words are used in this way; relatively few people would be brave enough to use lipstick on only one lip. Outside of the fashion industry, though, you’d be more likely to refer to eyes, lips, and pants (or trousers in British English). There is a distinction that, with body parts, we have no problem thinking about a single eye or a single lip, but what of a single pant or trouser? Why do these words almost invariably come as a plural?
Well, without knowing it, you’ve been using a plurale tantum, Latin for ‘plural only’ and used for ‘a noun which is used only in plural form, or which is used only in plural form in a particular sense or senses.’ These nouns are always treated grammatically as plurals: you would say my trousers are red rather than my trousers is red.
The list below explores some common pluralia tantum (for such is the plural):
Looking back, to around the 16th century, there was once a singular trouser – or, rather, a singular trouse; the –er form was always plural and may have been modelled on ‘drawers’. You might expect trouse to have originally designated a single leg, in much the manner of sleeve, but this is not the case. A trouse was not a world away from modern day trousers, being ‘a close-fitting article of attire for the buttocks and thigh (divided below so as to form a separate covering for each thigh), to the lower extremities of which stockings (when worn) were attached’. But at the same time, trouses was used in its plural form for the same object. Other similar garments are among today’s pluralia tantum: pants, shorts, leggings, jeans, flares, tights, overalls, dungarees etc.
The word scissors dates back to the 15th century, and in its first-known uses appeared either as singular (cysour, sysowre, and sizzer are early examples) or plural. The latter quickly overtook the former in popularity, and today you are only likely to encounter the singular scissor as a verb (to cut, or in a figurative sense) or used attributively to form a compound noun such as scissor kick. Many other two-bladed tools are also pluralia tantum: pliers, forceps, shears, tweezers, tongs.
Obviously the singular noun glass exists, but when referring to eyewear, you will only hear about glasses; even the fashion world doesn’t seem yet to have started recommending that people wear a chic glass. The same is true of binoculars, spectacles, and goggles.
As with other pluralia tantum, a singular becomes available if the noun is prefixed by ‘pair of’: a pair of glasses is an expensive purchase, rather than a pair of glasses are an expensive purchase. Having said that, you are likely to hear pair of glasses treated as both a singular and a plural: the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus (a research programme which collects around 150 million words of current English in use each month) records roughly equal instances of pair of glasses is and pair of glasses are.
Looking more broadly in the world of attire, we speak of clothes, but never of a single clothe (a word which exists only as a verb). Cloth exists as a singular noun, but meaning ‘woven or felted fabric, made from wool, cotton, or a similar fibre’, rather than ‘a garment’. This was not always the case. In the late 14th century, cloth could be used to refer to a single garment, robe, or coat; this use is found in Piers Plowman, Wycliffe’s translation of the Psalms, and the works of Chaucer. Now, to quote the etymology note in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘clothes remains a collective plural without a singular; to express the latter, a phrase such as “article of clothing” is used’.
Pluralia tantum don’t necessarily end in ‘s’, of course, particularly if they have kept their plural formation from another or an earlier language. Marginalia – ‘notes written in the margins of a text’ – comes from Latin, which also had the singular marginalis. The singular did not make its way into English, however, and thus marginalia joins the ranks of pluralia tantum, where it is joined by other Latin borrowings including juvenilia (‘works produced by an author or artist while still young’) and literati (well-educated people who are interested in literature). Some words which follow a similar pattern and are most commonly used as plurals (paraphernalia and regalia, for instance) can actually also be used in the singular.
Although there is also the option of folks (often seen in old folks’ home, for instance), folk is also itself exclusively a plural: in current English, you cannot have one folk. The word dates back to Old English, and is of Germanic origin.
Pluralia tantum needn’t be tangible objects; shenanigans is commonly held to be an example. The word is of uncertain origin, and means ‘secret or dishonest activity or manoeuvring’ or ‘silly or high-spirited behaviour; mischief’. The singular shenanigan is not in common use, and is not included in OxfordDictionaries.com, but the history of shenanigans actually follows the same pattern as clothes, albeit over a shorter period. The earliest known example of the word is from an 1855 article in Town Talk: ‘Are you quite sure? No shenanigan?’. This usage is found in various sources, including the letters of Mark Twain, throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries; in recent years, it has fallen out of use almost completely.
The singular loggerhead exists in reference to a variety of turtle and a variety of shrike, and is an archaic term meaning ‘a foolish person’, but is nowadays most commonly met in the phrase at loggerheads. This means ‘in violent dispute or disagreement’, and is never found as at loggerhead. It has been suggested that this use of loggerheads relates to a late 17th-century sense of loggerhead meaning ‘long-handled iron instrument for heating liquids and tar’, when wielded as a weapon.
Speaking of phrases, you’re unlikely to hear about cahoots outside of the informal phrase in cahoots (‘colluding or conspiring together secretly’), and you won’t discover a single cahoot in current English, although the word was once used that way. The etymology is uncertain, but a link has been suggested with the French cahute, meaning ‘hut, shack’.
You can make amends but you cannot make an amend; the latter now exists only as a verb. The noun amends comes from the Old French amendes meaning ‘penalties, fine’; in Old French, it was the plural of amende, but only the plural found its way into English. You might make amends by paying damages; while damage is a common mass noun, in the sense of ‘a sum of money claimed or awarded in compensation for a loss or injury’, the word is now only found in the plural.
Probably from the Irish smidirín, smithereens means ‘small pieces’ (almost invariably in the context of destruction; the table got smashed to smithereens, for example). Smithers is also used, but you will not find smither or smithereen in the singular – although the transitive verb smithereen (‘to smash or blow up into tiny fragments’) is included in the OED.
Although the verb thank is common, especially in the exclamation thank you, you wouldn’t give somebody a single thank – unless you happened to be in Ancient Britain and using the Old English thanc, from which the modern word stemmed. Again, the singular was dropped eventually – although examples are found as late as the 19th century.
There are any number of compound nouns and phrases that are chiefly or always found as plurals, even though the constituent words may often be used in the singular. Among them are bare-bones, arts and crafts, bacon and eggs, good manners, bad manners, baked beans, bits and pieces, goods and chattels, glad rags, halcyon days, high spirits, high jinks, jazz hands, ladies and gentlemen, and last rites. Conversely, there are some singularia tantum; nouns that are never pluralized. These include dust, wealth, and information. But that is for another article…