The category of number of nouns

Modern English like most other languages distinguishes two numbers: singular and plural. Plural and singular nouns stand in contrast as diametrically opposite. Instances are not few, however, when their opposition comes to be neutralised.

And this is to say that there are cases when the numeric differentiation appears to be of no importance at all. Here belong many collective abstract and material nouns. If, for instance, we look at the meaning of collective nouns, we cannot fail to see that they denote at the same time a plurality and a unit.

They may be said to be doubly countables and thus from a logical point of view form the exact contrast to mass nouns: they are, in fact, at the same time singular and plural, while mass words are logically neither. The dual nature of collective nouns is shown linguistically in various ways: by the number of the verb or by the pronoun referring to it, as for instance, My family are early risers, they are already here. Cf. My family is not large.

It is important to observe that the choice between singular and plural depends on the meaning attached to the noun.

A word should be said about stylistic transpositions of singular nouns in cases like the following: trees in leaf, to have a keen eye, blue of eye, strong of muscle. Patterns of this kind will exemplify synecdoche — the simplest case of metonymy in grammar («pars pro toto»).

The Germans won the victories. By God they were soldiers. The Old Hun was a soldier. But they were cooked too. They were all cooked… The Hun would come down through the Trentino, and cut the railway at the Vicenza and then where would the Italians be? (Hemingway)

Very often the plural form, besides its specific meaning may also retain the exact meaning of the singular, which results in homonymy.

1) custom = habit, customs = 1) plural of habit 2) duties 2) colour = tint, colours = 1) plural of tint

2) flag 3) effect = result, effects = 1) results 2) goods and chattels 4) manner = mode or way, manners = 1) modes, ways 2) behaviour 5) number = a total amount of units, numbers = 1) in counting 2) poetry 6) pain = suffering, pains = 1) plural of suffering 2) effort 7) premise = a statement or proposition, premises = propositions surrounding to a house 8) quarter = a fourth part, quarters = 1) fourth parts 2) lodgings There are also double plurals used with some difference of meanings: 1) brother 1) brothers (sons of one mother) 2) brethren (members of one community) 2) genius 1) geniuses (men of genius) 2) genii (spirits) 3) cloth 1) cloths (kinds of cloth)  2) clothes (articles of dress) 4) index 1) indexes (tables of contents) 2) indices (in mathematics)

There are some plurals which have been borrowed from foreign nouns:
















Mention should be made in this connection of nouns which have two parallel variants in the plural exactly alike in function but different in their stylistic sphere of application, e. g.:

cow — cows and kine (arch., now chiefly poetic)

foe — foes and fone (arch.)

shoe — shoes and shoen (arch.)

Morphological variation will be found in nouns foreign in origin. Through the natural process of assimilation some borrowed nouns have developed parallel native forms, as in:

formula — formulae, formulas terminus — termini, terminuses focus — foci, focuses stratum — strata, stratums

Foreign plurals are decidedly more bookish than the native ones.

For all the details concerning the grammatical organisation of nouns and their patterning in different kind of structures students are referred to the text-books on English grammar. Two things should be noted here.

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