An ELT Glossary : Singular and plural nouns

Singular or Plural - or both?

  • Most countable nouns can be either singular or plural : a desk, two desks / a dog, two dogs / a house, two houses / a path, two paths / a child, two children / a deer, two deer 
  • Uncountable nouns are always singular - eg education, milk, information
  • Some nouns are only used in the plural eg : cattle, police, folk, trousers, jeans. Some of these may be used in singular or plural form with one meaning but only in the plural with another. Eg  Premise : Meaning 1 - a premise / two premises = proposition(s); Meaning 2 - premises (plural only) = buildings

Regular plurals

Nouns with a regular plural form add "s" (in writing) to the singular form. Pronunciation may differ. In general :

i) if the singular noun finishes with an unvoiced consonant, the sound /s/ is used : /desks/
ii) if the singular noun finishes in a voiced consonant, /z/ is used : /dɒgz/

There are exceptions to this, however. For example :

a) some words ending in unvoiced fricatives or affricates add /ɪz/ - eg church /ʧɜːʧ/ becomes ʧɜːʧɪz/; horse /hɔːs/ becomes /hɔːsɪz/

In the case of the word house, this also involves a change in voicing of the final syllable: /haʊs/ becomes /haʊzɪz/ 

b) This potential change in the voicing of the final consonant also applies to  words which end with a vowel plus unvoiced /θ/, eg path /pɑːθ/, which becomes  /pɑːðz/ 

Irregular plurals

a) Nouns ending in /f/ may be regular and follow the rules in (i) above - eg belief/beliefs. However, others show  the change of  the final unvoiced /f/ to its voiced equivalent /v( plus /z/ (as with the /θ/ words described in (b) above), which is reflected also in the written form :  shelf/shelves; loaf/loaves; leaf/leaves; wife/wives

b) Some nouns change to the plural by a vowel change, which again will also affect the spelling : foot/feet; tooth/teeth; goose/geese; mouse/mice; louse/lice; man/men; woman/women. 

c) A few plurals are formed by adding a suffix with -en : ox/oxen; child/children

c) Some nouns make no change between singular and plural : eg series, species, and many types of animal - eg sheep, deer, salmon. Nouns referring to certain other types of animal may use either the regular plural, or not change  - eg a herd of antelopes / a herd of antelope.

d) Some nouns deriving from Latin or Greek retain a plural form which reflects the form in those languages : stimulus/stimuli; criterion/criteria