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The Hidden Traps of Plurals

by Jeff Karon

Plurals are no easy matter in English. Though a number of verbs are regular, allowing us to add an “s” to the end as in store/stores and stream/streams, many others are irregular, such as sheep/sheep (where the two forms are spelled the same) or mouse/mice (where the two forms are spelled differently). The plural of mouse even led one cartoon cat, Mr. Jinks, to exclaim amusingly that he hated “meeces to pieces,” which not only created a new plural form, but added an “s” just to be sure.

Mr. Jink’s real genius, however, was in creating a rhyme so that he—and we—could remember the plural form. Some psychologists and linguists, such as Iris Berent and Steven Pinker in their article “The Dislike of Regular Plurals in Compounds: Phonological Familiarity or Morphological Constraint,” claim that irregular forms are not handled the same way by our brains—we do not apply rules, as we do for regular forms, but instead recall them as individual units. In short, they must be memorized separately, a real burden for someone learning a second language, for instance.

All of which brings me to the pluralization of hyphenated compounds, such as brother-in-law and certain non-hyphenated compounds, such as attorney general. The plurals are formed by adding an “s” to the first word which is the “main” word or “head”: brothers-in-law and attorneys general. This class of plurals initially seems well-behaved, as long as we can locate the main word on which the others depend. No wonder that an English teacher recently took issue with my suggestion that the plural of stick-in-the-mud is stick-in-the-muds (not sticks-in-the-mud). No, she insisted, I should know that the “s” attaches to the main word, which becomes “sticks.”

But now we have to think about grammatical categories. All the pluralized words we have been considering are nouns. It is tempting to think that “stick” must be a noun, too—but if so, then the image probably would be of a stick poking out of the mud. But the more reasonable derivation is from stuff that got stuck in mud; thus, “stick” is a verb. And if it is a verb, then the “s” goes at the end of the compound: stick-in-the-muds.

What I’ve been discussing demonstrates the complexity that lies just beneath the surface of our language choices—and I have just scratched the surface of plurals. For example, there are nouns that don’t have any plural form at all, such as the word information, an excellent example of a trap for someone learning English by extending the rules of well-behaved words.


Jeff, a former English professor, is a consultant, writer, poet and editor of creative nonfiction, biographies/memoirs, novels, short stories, poetry, articles, self-help books, business reports, proposals, dissertations, and theses.

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