Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Whereas poisonous and venomous have two distinct meanings, the root word for both dwarfs and dwarves is the same: dwarf. That creates all kinds of confusion, because standard practice when pluralizing a word that ends in an F is to remove the F and add VES. That’s what we do when we go from leaf to leaves or knife to knives.

Why is it, then, that we sometimes encounter the word “dwarfs” under so many different contexts? Is that an incorrect spelling? Or are there circumstances where it is appropriate?

As a rule of thumb, the plural form “dwarfs” is used when describing things in real life. My bunny Roy was a Netherland Dwarf Rabbit. If there were several of these rabbits in a colony, it would be appropriate to say there were many Netherland Dwarfs in the area. In the context of astronomy, you might also refer to white dwarf stars simply as white dwarfs. The political correctness is debatable, but a group of people who have dwarfism may be called dwarfs too.

The plural form “dwarves,” however, is generally used more often in the context of fantasy. This was popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien and his The Lord of the Rings series, where characters like Gimli were commonly referred to as dwarves. Strangely enough, while it is also a work of fiction, Snow White and the Seven “Dwarfs” has become the standard spelling for that story.

A quick search on Google yields over 20 million results for “dwarfs,” but only 11 million results for “dwarves.” This isn’t necessarily indicative of one being correct and the other being incorrect, but it does seem to reflect the splitting of the spelling conventions described above. There are simply more circumstances where “dwarfs” would be the right spelling to use.

Similarly, when you are trying to say that one object is making another object appear small or insignificant in comparison, you would say that object A “dwarfed” object B. This will always be the case in this kind of usage. Again, a quick Google search yields over three million results for “dwarfed” and only 36,000 for “dwarved.”

English is such a tricky language, don’t you think?