Stick to those good old irregular plurals

Back on 7 April, Philip B. Corbett’s “After Deadline” column in the NYT (which “examines questions of grammar, usage and style encountered by writers and editors of The Times”) noted a new stylebook entry on dwarf, which begins:

dwarf(s) (n.) Use this as the usual term for people with a genetic condition resulting in unusually short stature. Midget, once used to describe dwarfs of otherwise normal proportions …

Two commenters objected strongly to dwarfs as a plural of dwarf. These objections surely arise in part from an adherence to One Right Way: variant usages are not allowed, so if the writers themselves use dwarves, dwarfs must be wrong. But something further is going on here: a belief in the superiority of irregular forms over regular forms, especially where the writer believes the irregulars are older. (At least some usage critics seem to think that regularization is the work of the ignorant, the less educated, the lazy, and so on.)

But sometimes, as in this case, critics are wrong about the history and about current usage.

[Note: I had the attributions to commenters wrong in my earlier version.]  

Here’s the first commenter, Rob Arndt, in comment 11:

Why “dwarfs” as the plural noun? “Dwarves” used to be usual; “knives” still is… I’d prefer to go back to “rooves” and “wharves” as well.

Where to begin? Well, note that OED2 (1989) says flatly that the plural is dwarfs, with cites of this form from 1664 (and only one cite for dwarves, from 1819). More recent dictionaries seem mostly to say things like: pl. dwarfs, also dwarves.

So where does dwarves come from? From J.R.R. Tolkien, who introduced it as an innovation in The Hobbit (1937), as a parallel to the plural elves (which genuinely is an old form). Tolkien’s authority and example seem to have led many people to believe that it’s the only correct form.

Meanwhile, roofs is the standard plural, and has been around since at least 1611; rooves does occur, but as a dialect form and as an occasional analogical formation. And wharves and wharfs are now variant plurals. Each word has its own history and sociolinguistic profile. There is both regularization and irregularization (sometimes by analogy, sometimes in playfulness), and some regularizations become standard.

Now, the second commenter, Claudia, in comment #22, going for bald assertion and withering scorn:

“Dwarfs”? Seriously? Since when does the NYT dictate incorrect spelling? The verb “to dwarf” is conjugated as “it dwarfs”, but the noun, plural of dwarf, is definitely dwarves.

Confusing verbs and nouns again, are we? Shame! 😉

Notice that Claudia is so sure that her opinion is the only correct one that it doesn’t occur to her to check to see whether the Times stylesheet might not be on to something.

(There are, of course, a number of different senses of dwarf, and many people who have both plurals differentiate senses, at least in part, by the choice of plural: dwarves for the beings of legend, but dwarfs for the people in the stylesheet entry and for dwarf stars.)

6 Responses to “Stick to those good old irregular plurals”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    While the spelling “rooves” is obsolete, the corresponding pronunciation is not; likewise “earnt” vs “earned”. That’s to say, JC Wells’ Longman Pronouncing Dictionary marks both as less common variants, but not as regional or nonstandard.

    I won’t claim, however, that the pronunciation “dwarves” is historically more common than the spelling evidence would suggest.

  2. mae Says:

    Disney used “dwarfs” — that should be authoritative enough for anyone.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Mae: yes, Disney used “dwarfs” in 1937, but now there a huge number of hits for “seven dwarves”, including many in which the movie is referred to as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves!

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Tolkien actually thought the plural *should* be “dwarrow”, as I recall.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Doug Wilson has written to point out an ADS-L discussion of dwarves back in 2001, in particular this posting of his, in which he provides some pre-Tolkien cites. In his recent mail, Wilson notes that thanks to Google Books, you can now unearth plenty of cites, going back at least to the early 19th century.

    This should not be a surprise. Analogical formations are common.

    Tolkien’s role seems to have been as a vector for the spread of dwarves.

  6. Arf « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] dwarf – dwarves/dwarfs (see the Language Log posting here and the posting in this blog here on the plural of dwarf […]

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