English is full of exceptions. So today we’re going to talk about plural exceptions. Because they are created in general at random.
Man-men, mouse-mice, goose-geese – they are too far out of the standard rule, where you need to add -s or -es at the end. We will try to figure out why this is happening, what patterns are and how best to remember them.
Why men, not mans, and what does umlaut have to do with it
There are several hundred words in the English language with a “wrong” plural. And they are created at random.
True, anyhow. Because there is no single rule or assembly of rules by which the exceptions from the standard scheme with the -s and -es endings work. All exceptions have moved to modern English from Old English.
In fact, people simply used more familiar forms of words, which later became the linguistic norm.
In some cases, the plural is created not by the ending, but by replacing the vowels.
Man – men
Goose – geese
Tooth – teeth
Foot – feet
The main reason is umlaut. Yes, this is almost the same umlaut with dots over a vowel that still works in German today and continues to surreptitiously operate in English.
Umlaut (i-mutation or i-umlaut) is a type of vowel change in which the sound from the back or middle turns into the front: [u>y, o>e, ɑ>æ или ɑ>æ>e]…
In Old English, umlaut served to create plurals, comparative degrees, and verb forms in a wide variety of cases. In general, a universal mechanism.
mann – menn (man-men) – man-men
fōt – fēt (foot-feet) – foot-feet, foot-feet
mūs – mȳs (mouse-mice) – mouse-mice
Such a movement of vowels to change the forms of lexemes is quite common for the entire Germanic group of languages. Linguists suggest that the process itself began around 450-500 AD, during the Great Migration.
The only Germanic language that was not influenced by the umlaut is Gothic. All the rest somehow “moved the vowels”.
In modern German, the umlaut is a grammatically fixed norm. Umlauts are also found in Swedish and Icelandic. In English, only its influence can be traced.
For example, in the following word pairs:
Food (food) – feed (feed);
Full – fill;
Gold (gold) – gild (to gold).
Even a layman can see that the forms of words are practically the same. The only difference is the sound of the vowel. This is the influence of the Old English umlaut.
The plural vowel substitution of modern English words is an exception. And here there is an interesting point – all such lexemes are very close and familiar to the common people. They were used a lot – and that’s why they didn’t change when most changed to plurals with the endings -s and -es. People just continued to use their familiar forms.
But that doesn’t answer the question of why mouse and mice are spelled so strangely. Here is another reason, indirectly related to the first.
The fact is that in the Old English language there were no uniform spellings of words. Instead, there were a bunch of regional dialects that scribbled words at random. Spelling unification became possible only with the invention of the printing press. But there were no linguists as such then, so printers invented the spelling of words based on their own subjective ideas about correctness. And due to the wide distribution of printed literature, such invented options became the only true ones. The case with mouse and mice is exactly that.
About the printers and how they changed the English language, we described in more detail in the material. “When you learned the pronunciation of English words, you swore to William Caxton, even if you didn’t know who he was.”…
By the way, some words ending in -is also form plurals in a rather strange way. For instance:
axis – axes
crisis – crises
analysis – analyzes
thesis – theses (thesis-theses)
This is where both rules come into play. The ending -es is formally added. But the resulting shapes are rather dissonant. Crisises, analysises – there is a little overkill with the letter “s”, they are inconvenient to pronounce and write. Therefore, the “extra” ending is not written here, but simply change the sound as in the example with the umlauts from Old English.
By the way, a big study on umlauts here… High quality and detailed – for geeks and linguists.
Moose and moose: when singular and plural are the same
Now let’s remember another interesting trick: words that have the same singular and plural. Here is some of them:
Sheep – sheep
Fish – fish
Deer – deer (deer-deer)
Moose – moose (moose-moose)
Swine – swine
Buffalo – buffalo
Shrimp – shrimp (shrimp-shrimp)
Trout – trout (trout-trout)
All of these words have something in common: they denote wild animals that can be caught while fishing or hunting. That is, animals that can be eaten. And this feature is interestingly reflected in the English grammar.
There is such a concept of zero plurals – zero plural. That is, formally it exists, but in fact it does not.
Let’s take a moose as an example. Moose can refer to a specific animal as well as a species or type in general.
I’ve shot a moose yesterday – Yesterday I shot a moose. – A specific animal.
I’m going to hunt moose – I’m going to hunt moose. – Generalized name of the species.
And since a specific animal and a species in general could be called with one word, then the forms of the singular and plural were the same.
It should be said here that technically some of these words have a “classic” plural ending with -s or -es. But it is used only in special and rather infrequent cases.
For example, if there are a lot of fish to mention, fish is used. But if you mean a lot species fish, fishes can be used here quite legally. Also, the word fishes is allowed if we mean Pisces as a sign of the zodiac. The correct name, of course, is Pisces, but Fishes is also the norm.
By the same logic, shrimps can be used when talking about different types of shrimp.
Interestingly, pets are quite good friends with the endings -s and -es: for example, cows or horses. And the zero plural applies only to the wild ones.
Regarding the reasons why this is so. In short, medieval people said: “I went to the deer.” Game was used in the singular, because it was not a specific animal that was meant, but the species as a whole. Over time, this became a common language tradition, which has survived to this day. And if you want a detailed linguistic analysis, then read this study… Everything is very clearly explained there.
Words with Latin and Greek roots
There are a lot of them in the scientific field, especially in mathematics. And basically these are the lexemes that end in -us or -um. And few of them have -on at the end.
Here, in general, they did not come up with anything and just took their plurals straight from Latin or Greek. Although over time, many of the forms were Englishized and now both are considered grammatically correct: originally Latin and English with -s or -es.
Focus – foci (focus-tricks)
Radius – radii (radius-radius)
Fungus – fungi
Cactus – cacti (cactus-cacti)
Latin plurals are most often found in scientific texts.
For example, in ordinary speech it is perfectly acceptable to say cactuses.
I saw so many cactuses in Mexico.
I have seen so many cacti in Mexico.
But if we mean precisely the genus and species of the cactus family, then it will be more appropriate to use cacti here.
It’s exactly the same with the plural of radius. In ordinary speech, it is perfectly acceptable to use radiuses – this will also be grammatically correct. But in mathematical examples and theorems, it is radii that should be taken.
Almost all students who study English as a second are shocked by the fact that data is plural. And the only thing really is datum.
The ending -a in the plural looks a little strange, but for those very Latin words this is the norm. And here it will no longer be possible to get out by the fact that both options are possible.
The word bacteria is correct, but bacteriums is a mistake. It’s the same with the words curriculum, memorandum, stratum.
Well, and just a little remember the Greek word phenomenon – phenomenon. Because its plural is formed clearly according to the rule above – the ending changes to -a. Therefore, not phenomenons, but phenomena.
It is clear that these are not all exceptions in grammar. Yes, the English language consists of a little more exceptions than all. It would be worth remembering child and children, as well as person and people. But you can write a separate large material on them. If you are still interested in it, write about it in the comments.
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