One Fish, Two Fish(es?)

Most people know the plural form of a word like dog. There is one dog and then there are many dogs. However, there are many words in the English language where pluralization isn’t quite so simple. In the example above, Dr. Seuss is absolutely correct to say that there are two fish. It’s not two fishes. This is a very common mistake that people make. It is also very common for people to use apostrophes when pluralizing, but this is not correct either. You don’t say that there are three iPod’s; you say that there are three iPods.

There are some common rules in place when it comes to singular-plural word pairs, but there are far too many exceptions to this rule as well. The distinction is not quite as clear as choosing between less and fewer. Yes, English is far from being the easiest language to learn. That’s why if you’ve written something and you don’t feel all that confident in your English skills, it would be advisable to hire a freelance writer (like me) to do a quick edit. This small investment can be very valuable to both students and business professionals.

Listed below are some singular-plural word pairs where people seem to make mistakes. Have you encountered these errors? Have you been using the wrong word all this time?

  • louse/lice: Because people very rarely refer to a single louse, they may not be familiar with the singular form of this nasty bug, but it follows the same pattern as mouse and mice.
  • die/dice: In much the same way as louse and lice, very few people ever refer to a single die. You don’t have one dice. You have one die. Use the term properly the next time you are in Las Vegas.
  • curriculum/curricula: By and large, this will only concern those in the academic realm, but it would be incorrect to say “many curriculums.”
  • ox/oxen: In North America, we tend to just look at our cattle, but in other parts of the world, they have oxen instead.
  • moose/moose: Many creatures in the animal kingdom have the same word to refer to both a single animal and multiple animals.
  • scissors/scissors: As strange as it may sound, you would never say that you have a scissor, even if you were to snap a pair of scissors in half.
  • focus/focuses/foci: In mathematics, it is perhaps more correct to refer the multiple as foci, but it is also right to say focuses.
  • criterion/criteria: You may have several criteria on your list, but a single item on this list is a criterion.
  • brother-in-law/brothers-in-law: They are not your brother-in-laws; they are your brothers-in-law. The same can be about terms like secretaries-of-state, and attorneys-general.
  • thief/thieves: There is no such word as thiefs. They’re called thieves.
  • chief/chiefs: Even though “chief” looks a lot like “thief,” the plural form is not constructed the same way.
  • alumnus/alumna/alumni: This one really pains me. If you graduated from a certain school, you are an alumnus (if you’re a guy) or an alumna (if you’re a gal). Alumni refers to multiple graduates.
  • loaf/loaves: The next time you go to the bakery, ask for two loaves of bread, not two loafs.

Do you have any singular-plural pairs that you would like to see clarified? Pose your question through the comment form below and I’ll try to provide the best answer possible.