Our endangered English irregular plurals

The complex history of English manifests itself in various ways. It contains a multitude of loan words both from the English having been conquered, and having been conquerors. The commercial, religious and political history of the English is all evident in our language. Indeed, it can be said that English is a “diverse” language for that reason.
But the massive flood of non-English speakers, into traditionally English-speaking countries, has taken its toll.  Similarly, the increase (and popularity) of “ebonics” and “gangsta culture” has eroded the finer aspects of our language. Words that are not associated with the lower classes are falling by the wayside. For example, the pronoun “whom” has been dying a slow death.
I’ve been in regular contact, recently, with a black man who works for a financial institution. He holds a position that requires him to communicate with the public, yet his mastery over the English language is rudimentary. He says “ax” instead of “ask,” he can’t pronounce “relevant,” and he struggles with many terms that we would expect to be used by those with a high school diploma or better. Whether he gained his position through affirmative action or not, such institutions have a social obligation to make sure that those charged with public communication can actually speak English correctly.
English is not simply a mode of communication; it’s living testimony to our history and cultural heritage. It pains me to witness the finer aspects of this noble language fading away.
One casualty of this onslaught is our irregular plural nouns. Some English-speakers shudder when they hear that Arabic has a multitude of plural forms; they think, “how do people remember all these?” But English also has a multitude of plural forms. Those of us who were raised speaking English often forget this. Here are some examples of irregular forms:

Elf  —————  Elves
Man ————– Men
Foot ————– Feet
Mouse ———– Mice
Child ————- Children
Deer ————— Deer
Amoeba ———- Amoebae
Genus ————- Genera
Cactus ———— Cacti
Datum ———— Data
Index ————- Indices
Crisis ————- Crises
Phenomenon — Phenomena

It’s safe to say that most English-speakers, at least in the U.S., get confused between “phenomenon” and “phenomena.” Those of lower education, lower class, and foreigners tend to become vexed when it comes to such irregular plurals. To make themselves understood, they’ll often default to simply adding an “s” to form a plural. Thus we find the increasing popularity of “indexes” instead of “indices,” “memorandums” instead of “memoranda,” and “syllabuses” instead of “syllabi.”
The death of irregular plurals starts with the most obscure, and proceeds to the more common. I predict that in the future, perhaps within the lifetime of some readers, we’ll hear forms such as “childs,” “mans” and “foots.”
Diversity brings about a state of affairs where everybody is eventually reduced to the lowest common denominator. Forcing together people of different social classes, races and ethnicities can only lead to the dumbing down of language.

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41 Responses to Our endangered English irregular plurals

  1. CharlesK says:

    I heard “mens” as the plural of “man” from a student from the South Side of Chicago. That was 20 years ago.
    Luckily the VAX computer has been discontinued, or we would likely soon be hearing “VAXes” as the plural. I used to work for a flight simulator company that had dozens of VAXen.

  2. BX says:

    Ox -> Oxen is another good example, the -en plural going back to our ancient Germanic past (as it is with children too, though this strangely as an “r” in there also). And leaf -> leaves is I guess a semi-irregular plural.
    “English is not simply a mode of communication; it’s living testimony to our history and cultural heritage.” Good point efficiently made. I will remember this and bring it up with self-righteous family members next time I hear them bang on about this or that poor little dark-people culture being on the wane, yet they don’t give a darn about our own collective (English speaking countries) culture, and the seriously dumbed-down slide it’s accelerating down.

  3. Stary Wylk says:

    Then there’s “A dice” instead of “A die”.

  4. Staffan says:

    Isn’t this what happened to Latin? I’m sure there are no other analogies to the Roman Empire though : )

  5. KO says:

    The English language is a wonderful toolbox to which everyone has absolutely free access. You can maintain the tools, you can try and upgrade them, or you can abuse and degrade them, impoverishing the tool box for future users. People need to respect their tools and do the best they can with them. To despise your tools is to despise yourself.
    Best wishes.

  6. Sgt. Joe Friday says:

    Not quite O/T, but has anyone else noticed that Asians – especially the Vietnamese and Chinese – really struggle with plurals? Here in southern California you see stores everywhere that offer “Coffee and Donut.” Or they will tack on the plural to a word that is already plural, e.g. “equipments.”

    • jewamongyou says:

      It’s very much on topic. The impact of “Engrish” on English might turn out to be a serious one.

    • Aaron says:

      Since Chinese culture is the dominant cultural/linguistic influence throughout Asia (remember, China is an empire, not a country), this linguistic issue is not limited to the Chinese/Vietnamese people (Vietnam is essentially China as well). Thus you’ll find this issue with plurals with Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos writing in English.
      The gaps in knowledge among Whites of Asian culture is a major threat. Many Whites are very aware of the cultural issues with Blacks (and to some extent Latinos) but they have no idea what a threat Asians are. Here is a hint form someone who speaks multiple Asian languages and works with many different Asian people: Asians (including Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, etc.) feel toward Whites what the Nazis felt toward the Jewish people, Slavic people, etc. It is an ugly thing that Whites (including the so-called race-realists) are clueless about.

  7. CS says:

    The value of English as a means of clear and precise communication is greatly undermined by those who assert the authority of common usage in determining correct usage, whether with respect to the meaning of words, grammatical constructions, spellings, or noun forms.
    More than 50 years ago, Bertrand Russell rubbished the idea of the primacy of common usage in an article in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, but clearly no one took the slightest notice.
    Oddly, though, even those who argue for the rule of common usage do not adhere to it. Rather, virtually everyone has more than one dialect, each employed in particular circumstances: for example, talking to babies or dogs, talking with the guys down the pub, or writing an application for employment.
    What’s important is to refute the idea that ignorance of the language is harmless and something that education need not address. To encourage the verbally challenged in the belief that their command of language is equal to that of anyone, amounts to a subtle but vicious form of oppression.

    • Stary Wylk says:

      Hmm? Oppression through indulgence?

      • CS says:

        Yes, oppression through indulgence is surely the strategy of the ruling elite: Keep the masses ignorant, thoughtless and unambitious by feeding them porn and Pussy Riot. It is much easier to control a mob of ignoramuses than a meritocratic society in which the youth is “well whipt,” to use Samuel Johnson’s expression:
        “Mr. Langton one day asked him [Samuel Johnson] how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, ‘My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.'”
        ― James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
        As long as a man speaks ebonics, one can be confident he will never climb the social ladder to a position of prominence outside of the entertainments industry that serves the elite by keeping the masses ignorant and depraved.

      • SFG says:

        I actually rather agree with your overall message, but Pussy Riot served to annoy the Russian masses more than anything else.

    • BX says:

      The idea of telling a bad English speaker (English, that is, as the speaker’s first language) that his way of speaking it is every bit as equal to that of a highly educated, “proper” English speaker, comes from the same relativist logic as the idea that every culture on earth is the same and of equal worth.
      If the self-righteous anti-racists want to tell us that, say, hip-hop American culture, complete with its bitchez, hos, ego-attitude, bling, and gun obsession, is no more or less worthy than Ancient Greek, Renaissance Florence, or 18th/19th Century German culture, then at the same time they must tell themselves that some idiot saying “ax” instead of “ask” and constantly using double negatives as their standard speech, is no better or worse than the way great Statesmen or poets correctly, and beautifully, use our language.
      This relativism is all completely absurd of course. You might as well say that one who squats a mosquito is no different to one who kills a person/gorilla/whale deliberately. As Nietzsche states, there might not be absolute truth, only different interpretations, but this does Not mean that some interpretations are not far more valid and valuable than others.
      As for Asian grammar, I can find “stir fried noodle” anywhere I go, but I’m stuffed if I actually want to find some fried noodles!!

  8. peppermint says:

    amoebae, data, syllabi, and indices are Latin. What this shows is that Latin has not been taught in universities in a hundred years.

    • CS says:

      And data apparently is either singular or plural depending on whether it is used as:
      “a count noun (can be replaced by facts) or a mass noun (can be replaced by information). An example of data used as a count noun is, “The data consist of the names, heights, and weights of the 30 children in this class.” An example of data used as a mass noun is, “Data is increasing at an incredible rate.” (Source)
      I’m not sure I buy that: a mass of information still consists of many items of information. I think what the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are doing by introducing the idea of data as a mass noun is covering for those who don’t realize that data is a Latin plural.
      But even if data can be construed as a singular noun, datum is not the singular of data, since a datum is, um, well not a singular data, according to the Oxford English Dictionary!

      • I spent thirty years of my working life up to my elbows in data. I can assure you that “data” is a mass noun in English. I never heard anyone unselfconsciously say “The data are ready.” It would be like hearing “The rice are cooked.”
        I never heard anyone say “datum,” either. The singular is “data item” or “item of data” (cf. “grain of rice”).
        If you’re using a Latin word with Latin inflections, print it in italics.
        Those are the agenda! Get with them!

      • CS says:

        I am sure in particular areas of specialization, particular constructions such as “data is” become standardized, even when, in the world at large, no such standardization exists.
        A Google search for “data are” (including the quotes) yields 23,3000 hits, versus “data is,” with 24,800,000 hits: a slight preponderance only for your preferred form.
        But then I tried Science Magazine‘s advanced search and found a strong preference for “data are”: 17,433 instances versus only 4,254 for “data is”. So among the technically literate, “data” is still a count noun.
        The reason that no one uses, or at least why no one should use, “datum” as the singular of data is because a “datum” is a benchmark, not a data item.

      • CS says:

        Darn, I got the damned dot in the wrong place. That should have been 23,400,000 hits for “data are,” as can be seen here.

  9. Nador says:

    I sympathise with your concern regarding the deterioration of the English language, but…
    Your examples are mostly regularisations of irregular nouns. Why do you think it is problem aside from the fact that it is not conservative? I mean it does not reduce functionality, comprehensibility, only makes the language more “streamlined”.
    I am fine with the argument that it has been so for a long time so we should not change it. Still, wouldn’t it be more sensible to attack changes that also affect functionality? In accordance with that I am very much in agreement with you regarding ‘whom’.
    As a non-native speaker of English I have always been perplexed by the insistence on using Latin and Greek plurals for certain Latin and Greek words [I had to study Latin in secondary school by the way]. This is not applied consistently and only the nominal case is used, despite accusative, genitive and maybe dative cases could be easily and properly used in English. From the outside it just seems snobbish, unnecessary and random. Proper ancient Latin (Roman) snobs used Greek conjugation and declension for their Greek loanwords, not just the plural nominative case.
    Do you oppose “y’all”? I never use it but I can very much see the disadvantages of having the same pronoun for S/2 and P/2. Was it a good idea to always be polite and use only you [which also eventually eliminated T-V distinction…]?

    • CS says:

      Your examples are mostly regularisations of irregular nouns. Why do you think it is problem
      Don’t know what JAY thinks, but I think regularization of irregular nouns and much else in the English language — spelling and grammar, for example — is undesirable simply because it impoverishes the language. If you want absolute regularity, take up Esperanto, which is very regular and very boring.
      True, irregularity makes a language more difficult to acquire, but everyone should be ready to make allowances for the errors of small children and non-native speakers. And everyone adjusts, or should try to adjust, their language according to needs of the occasion and the linguistic experience of those with whom they are speaking. The thing is to make the fullest, most effective, and funnest use of language, not to reduce it to its most basic form.
      And in fact, regularization of language is an impossibility. Whether text-message pidgin, the language of literature or the most complex technical verbiage, English evolves daily. What we should avoid is the crushing conformity sought by those who would make “common usage” the measure of correct usage.

      • Nador says:

        While I certainly do not want to force regularisation of language – especially other people’s language -, I can not see spontaneous loss of irregularity as something particularly bad. I do appreciate grammatical rules and their consistent application. Is a language richer, better if it adheres to its rules or if it conserves its historical particularities? I see both as a type of conservatism, but I am personally more favourable to rules.
        What we should avoid is the crushing conformity sought by those who would make “common usage” the measure of correct usage.
        I do not really understand you. Isn’t requiring past usage as correct also conformism? [Please, do not get me wrong: I do not think common usage should be the sole – probably not even main – measure of correctness.]

      • CS says:

        I’m not arguing for universal adherence to historical use, or any specific rule at all. But I am for retaining historical forms that serve a purpose — poetic, oratorical, humorous, scientific or whatever.
        And I have no objection to words like indexes or amoebas if people prefer to use them. I just won’t outlaw amoebae or indices, which in certain contexts probably work better. Moreover, it seems to me that one has only to think about standardizing on elfs, or mens to realize how dopey such standardization would be.

      • CS says:

        I meant mans would be dopey, not mens, which should, obviously have an apostrophe before the “s”, unless one is referring to a multiplicity of mans.

      • Nador says:

        I presume elfs and mans sound terrible for the English ear, but for me they sound fine…. Look, I certainly do not intend to tell you how to use English, I just probably assign slightly higher priority to rules than history than your preference.
        By the way, I mostly can not hear the difference between man and men. I know it theoretically sounds different, but æ and ɛ are rather close for me, additionally English pronunciation tends to deal with vowels fairly liberally. I sometimes hear the same native English speaker say the same word with different vowels in different sentences, so it goes both ways. We do not partition the vocal spectrum the same way.
        Also, why do English (American) people pronounce Weiner as Wiener? When I first heard jokes about Anthony Weiner’s name I assumed it was mispronounced to make fun of him. But apparently not.

      • CS says:

        I just probably assign slightly higher priority to rules than history than your preference.
        Yes, I understand. It’s amazing that anyone is able to learn English, even the English, given the manifold peculiarities of the language in spelling and pronunciation, and also the contempt of most English speakers for the correct pronunciation of foreign words and names.

      • Nador says:

        Peculiarities of spelling like pronounce and pronunciation?
        Yes, English spelling is not particularly easy. Also, for a foreign learner it is difficult to look up a word in a dictionary after hearing it. After a while one can hazard some guesses about the spelling, but one can never be sure. The non-existence of spelling bee competitions in Hungarian (or probably in any other phonetic language) is not accidental.
        I generally use a spell checker if I write in English. I have the excuse of not being English, but I would probably use one even if I were English.
        I am not particularly fond of English punctuation either. In Hungarian the essential rule is: use a comma to separate sub-sentences [clauses] and list items [more precisely: words that are in the same grammatical function in a sentence, if there is an ‘and’ then no comma is needed]. Sure, there are some elaborations to this rule, but it is concise and generally easier then the English punctuation. Which would theoretically be rather similar, but e.g. you do not use a comma to separate a dependent clause if it comes after the one it depends on…
        Nevertheless, I do not want to complain too much about English. It is among the easier languages, it is rather analytical but fortunately has a fairly extensive set of derivative suffixes. It does not have grammatical gender (except for pronouns) – so there is no need to learn le/la or der/die/das. Fortunately, there is no reversion of 10s and 1s in numbers like in German or Danish [and definitely no ‘quatre-vingts douze’]. And there is nothing exotic like definite and indefinite conjugation in Hungarian.

      • CS says:

        if there is an ‘and’ then no comma is needed]
        Same in English. The comma before the “and” in a list is optional; although it is necessary to avoid ambiguity if a list item itself contains an “and.”

    • SFG says:

      I’ve always been in favor of ‘y’all’…English needs a second person plural, all the other big European languages have one (vous, vosotros, ihr).
      Funny story about T-V: a French computer nerd I knew said he liked that about English. It was one fewer potential source of faux pas.

  10. panjoomby says:

    as a former stats teacher, my students learned these plural words: data, criteria, & media (single: datum, criterion, medium) those are my plural pet peeves:)

  11. sestamibi says:

    I had a black boss some years ago. He was a very sharp analyst, but also couldn’t do English right. He always said things like “I’m cognitive of your need for . . .”–not cognizant.

    • SFG says:

      A lot of them speak ebonics (AAVE, African American Vernacular English) at home and have to code-switch.
      It actually has a few extra tenses and so on.

  12. CharlesK says:

    My other favorite formation of a plural is derived from “man.” In certain neighborhoods, one male is a “man.” Two or three males are “men.” Four or five males are “mens.” More than five males are “menses” (two syllables), as in “Hey, all y’all. There’s ten menses on the corner.”

  13. JAY,
    Great post. This might be of interest to you and your readers:
    Original Oakland Resolution on Ebonics

    • jewamongyou says:

      Compare this recognition of Ebonics to the almost universal derision directed at Southern English and it quickly becomes apparent who is really being persecuted.

      • SFG says:

        Pretty much.
        I will say as a snooty New York hemi-Jew of middle class background it always seemed to me blacks were worse than Southerners but nobody wanted to admit it for fear of being racist. I had no idea about the collaboration between blacks and Jews (not you, I know) back in the sixties, and when I did find out I thought it was simply a result of liberalism.
        Besides, the disdain for Southerners struck me as the city-country thing common to every nation, where the city people think the country people are ignorant rubes, and the country people think the city people are incompetent losers who can’t change a tire.

  14. BX says:

    With regard to some of Nador’s interesting points, generally speaking I think it’s true that when learning a second language, one seems to have sympathies, or almost secretly wishing, for standard rules in its grammar to make it a little simpler. That makes it easier to learn, but it also makes the language lose its soul and intelligence. When I get my German (second language and far from fluent, English my first language) past tenses or plurals slightly wrong (not to mention its der/die/das and all the follow-on inflections they result in) I will cuss how hard the language is to master. But at the same time I will realise that this sort of thing makes up the language’s soul, and it is why German is and has been so great throughout its history for serious philosophical thought or hard-core science, and that this is what attracted me to it in the first place.
    So at the same time it’s only natural for worthy English speakers to care about their cultural heritage and hope to preserve part of what makes our minds tick the way they do. Language *shapes* ones mind and weltanschauung, as well as *being shaped* by a people’s collective mind, hence it’s an integral part of a culture. So the idea of saying mans or elfs is kinda ridiculous to us, it goes against our brain’s hardwiring, and by extension, lack of proper use of words like medium and datum (i.e.) can be seen as subtler versions of mans or elfs, and indicative of the rot which has well set in and is not exactly being driven out at a great pace.

    • SFG says:

      Some truth to that, though I think the Germans could do fairly well without their awful articles. They’d still have the incrediblyagglutinativenature of their Language, which allows One to Precisemammothwords construct.
      I mean, why bother with white guilt when you have Vergangenheitsbewältigung?

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