11 Nouns That Only Have a Plural Form

iStock.com/Wega52
iStock.com/Wega52

Of all the grammar concepts we have, “plural” seems to be one of the most straightforward. You got one thing? It’s singular. Got more than one thing? It’s plural. But alas, language is always less straightforward than we expect. The way we conceptualize something—as one thing or many things—doesn’t always match up with the way our word for it behaves. There are some nouns that only have a plural form, regardless of how we think of them. They are known as pluralia tantum, Latin for “plural only.” Here are 11 of them.

1. Scissors

Scissors has a plural verb agreement. We say, “the scissors are over there,” not "the scissors is over there." Scissors likes to hang on to its s. We can say “give me a pair of scissors,” but not “give me a scissor.” True, there is a sense in which scissors are two objects, two blades, being used as one tool, and many similar tools are also pluralia tantum: pliers, tongs, tweezers, forceps. But not all such tools are plural. A clamp, a bear trap, and a flat iron are also tools made of two joined parts, and they are singular.

2. Goggles

Goggles, glasses, and binoculars only show up in the plural. They are also generally conceived of as unitary objects, though they are made up of two connected parts. When new words are coined for things that function in front of the eyes, they will usually inherit the grammatical plurality (Blue Blockers, RayBans), but not always (see View-Master, Google Glass).

3. Pants

In the rarefied world of fashion reporting, you may see pant show up as a singular noun (“a floral pant is a must-have for spring”), but for the rest of us, pants is strictly plural. The tendency toward plural forms for clothing that provides separate enclosures for the two legs is strong: shorts, jeans, bloomers, tights, leggings, trousers, chaps, etc. The tendency for new such words to be coined with plurality is also strong: bell bottoms, skinnies, capris. We even say things like, “Levis are popular,” even though the brand name is actually not plural, but possessive—Levi’s.

4. Panties

The word underwear is a mass noun that takes singular agreement (“your underwear is showing”) but there are a cluster of pluralia tantum underwear words. In addition to panties, we have drawers, boxers, briefs, and tighty whities. Interestingly, thong is singular (perhaps because leg enclosure has little to do with it?), and so is bra (though it shares the shape characteristics of glasses and goggles).

5. Clothes

Pluralia tantum are often objects that involve some kind of connected pairing of two identical things, but they can also be terms for large collections of dissimilar things. Clothes, for example, can be shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, or underwear (we never say clothe to mean a singular item of clothing). Similarly, manners can be ways of talking, eating, or greeting.

6. Riches

There are a number of pluralia tantum that refer to possession or ownership. In addition to riches, there are furnishings, belongings, earnings, and valuables.

7. Jitters

There are also a few pluralia tantum having to do with mood or feelings. You can have the blues or be in the doldrums, but not have a blue or be in a doldrum. Likewise, jitters, willies, and heebie-jeebies always come in groups.

8. Shenanigans

Words for activities that might be individually very different in their specifics but similar in some general aspect will sometimes be pluralia tantum. You may indulge in shenanigans, heroics, or hysterics, or sometimes all three.

9. Remains

There is a small group of pluralia tantum for what’s left after the dust has settled. They may be remains, ruins, or leftovers.

10. Annals

There does happen to be a singular noun annal. It means the recorded events of one year. But we almost never see it this way. Most of us use annals in the way we use other plurals from set, antiquated phrases—pluralia tantum like alms and amends.

11. Suds

Suds is a strange one. Usually a word for a mass of stuff made of of teeny, tiny individuated parts will be a mass noun. For example, rice, sand, sugar, and salt are all mass nouns. Mass nouns have singular verb agreement (“the rice is cooked”). Suds is a plural noun and has plural agreement (“the suds are everywhere”). Does this mean we care more about individual soap bubbles than individual grains of rice? Probably not. Is that what a sud even is? A bubble? It doesn’t matter anyway, because we can know what suds are without knowing what a sud is. That’s the beauty of pluralia tantum.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

11 Versions of “Average Joe” From Other Countries

santypan/iStock via Getty Images
santypan/iStock via Getty Images

Average Joe, Joe Schmo, John Doe. He’s bland and average. Faceless, but not nameless. Every country needs a way to talk about just “some guy.” Here’s what 11 countries call that typical guy, who might have no specific qualities, but is still “one of our own.”

1. Germany: Otto Normalverbraucher

Literally, Otto “normal consumer."

2. China: Zhang San, Li Si

This translates to “Three Zhang, Four Li”—a reference to some of the most popular Chinese surnames.

3. Denmark: Morten Menigmand

"Morton Everyman."

4. Australia: Fred Nurk

Sounds pretty normal to me.

5. Russia: Vasya Pupkin

With a name like that, it’s hard not to be a typical schmo.

6. Finland: Matti Meikäläinen

Meikäläinen looks like a typical Finnish surname, but it also means “one of us.”

7. Sweden: Medelsvensson

Just your average Svensson.

8. France: Monsieur Tout-Le-Monde

“Mr. Everyone.” Also goes by Jean Dupont.

9. UK/New Zealand: Joe Bloggs

Still an average Joe (but can also be a Fred).

10. Italy: Mario Rossi

In Italy they just use a common name.

11. Latin America: Juan Pérez

The same is true in various Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.

A version of this list first ran in 2014.

When Are the Dog Days of Summer?

Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images
Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images

The official “dog days” of summer begin on July 3 and end on August 11. So how did this time frame earn its canine nickname? It turns out the phrase has nothing to do with the poor pooches who are forever seeking shade in the July heat, and everything to do with the nighttime sky.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky. The ancient Greeks noticed that in the summer months, Sirius rose and set with the Sun, and they theorized that it was the bright, glowing Dog Star that was adding extra heat to the Earth in July and August.

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