How many nouns?

Nearly all nouns have different singular and plural forms. I have one cat; he has two cats. I ate five apples; he had one apple. Nouns with a plural and a singular form are called variable nouns. Most variable nouns form the plural by taking an -s at the end. The added -s is called the regular plural form.

The Browns have one child; the Smiths have two children. Ah, that one is weird. This is an example of an irregular plural form. These nouns are still called variable nouns, they are just irregular. There are only a few hundred nouns like this, but they are the most interesting.

There are some nouns that are more ambiguous. Take wheat versus oats, for example. Wheat seems singular, but you could talk about a wheat field – many wheat plants – and that seems to be plural, no? Or what about oats? Oats is a plural, but it seems to be used interchangeably with the word wheat.

Here are some irregular patterns (oxymoron!):

  • Adding -en to the end of a noun to make it plural. Child, children; ox, oxen; brother, brethren (this can also be brothers). This is a remnant from Old English; <-n> used to be a case marker for plural. Chaucer used daughtren for daughters.
  • Changing the vowel in the middle of the word. Man, men; woman, women; foot, feet; goose, geese; tooth, teeth; louse, lice; mouse, mice. This is called mutation or umlaut. More on this in a later post.
  • Changing <f> to <v> and adding an -es or -s. Calf, calves; elf, elves; half, halves; hoof, hooves; knife, knives; leaf, leaves; life, lives; loaf, loaves; scarf, scarves; self, selves; shelf, shelves; wharf, wharves; wife, wives; wolf, wolves. Some of these are starting to become regular, though: scarfs, leafs, wharfs, etc… are becoming more and more popular. I’m not sure why this happens.
  • Just plain weird. ¬†Cow, kine (more commonly cows); die, dice.

And here is a fun spelling poem I found. I’m not sure who it’s by, but I wish I had written it!

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

I thought it was enjoyable.

Your Comment