Zero plurals

zero plurals in English

4/22/09: All our fish is farmed sustainably:

All our fish is farmed sustainably

I am someone with both a zero-plural grapefruit and an -s-plural grapefruits (for reference to more than one of the things, in both cases). The first two dictionaries I looked at diverge: NOAD2 gives only the zero plural, AHD4 specifies no plural, which is what it does for nouns with -s plurals.

8/9/10: Data points: nouning, zero plurals 8/9/10:

Data points: nouning, zero plurals 8/9/10

Here we have the count noun background ‘background actor/player’ derived by truncation and then given a zero plural — the verb agreement in “when “background” … tamper with her art work” shows that background in this clause is plural — rather than the regular -splural (“when “backgrounds” … tamper with her art work”).

6/3/11: Louis XIII cognac:

Louis XIII cognac

[Note plural eau-de-vie, though eau is singular in French. So it’s a zero plural. And in fact, you can google up lots of occurrences of many eau de vie, alongside some for many eaux de vie.]

7/28/11: muskox(en):


This photo is on a card from Greatland Graphics in Anchorage.

… Chris [Waigl] wrote muskoxen on her photo, but the card’s text has the zero plural muskox.

OED3 (June 2011) on musk ox … has cites from 1744 and, significantly, lists the plural as “musk oxenor unchanged”. There’s real variation on this point.

… A zero plural for muskox but not ox would be predicted by (weak) generalizations concerning zero plurals. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language  has a summary of “base plurals” on pp. 1588-9, with five subsections, beginning with:

(a) Nouns denoting edible and game fish: carpcodhaddockhakemackerelperchroachsalmontroutturbot.

These (and others of the same semantic class) almost always have base plurals.

(b) Nouns denoting game animals and birds, of three subtypes:

[i] bisondeergrousemooseswine [base plural only]

[ii] elkquailreindeer [base or regular plural]

[iii] elephantgiraffelionpartridgepheasant [base plural restricted]

… Those in [iii] normally have a regular plural as the only possibility …; base plurals, however, are found in the context of hunting and shooting (They were hunting elephant) or when referring to collections of them (a herd of elephant).  It is arguable, however, that the latter construction involves not a base plural, but a special use of the singular in certain syntactic contexts (comparable to the six foot tall construction …).

The muskox is a game animal (note the reference to hunting to extinction above), so muskox should fall in group (b), for which a zero plural is (at least sometimes) allowed; the facts of the matter suggest that it belongs to (b)[ii]. On the other hand, the ox is a domestic animal, so ox (like cowhorsepig, and goat) should have only a regular plural.

12/3/11: Cannibal shrimp:

Cannibal shrimp

I have been pluralizing CRS as CRSs, but you can see that some CRS fanciers treat the initialism as having a zero plural, presumably because shrimp does. For these people, CRS is understood as simply a briefer way of writing (or saying) crystal red shrimp.

10/24/14: The plural of Miss Subways:

The plural of Miss Subways

Over the years, nearly two hundred women served as Miss Subways. So there were nearly two hundred Miss Subwayses? No that can’t be right: Subways is already plural. The obvious solution is a zero plural, with only one realization of plural inflection: nearly two hundred Miss Subways. And that’s the solution in the New Yorker piece.

3/28/15: Hillary’s emoji:

Hillary’s emoji

on this blog, a 12/31/14 posting on emoji(s). Note: the title of this posting has plural emoji, but the text has plural emojis, and some of the the sites about the characters use one, some the other. The zero plural is a more direct borrowing from Japanese (which has no plural inflection), while the /z/ plural has the word fully nativized in English. The Oxford Dictionaries site accepts both.

9/26/15: Two notes on Wondermark:

Two notes on Wondermark

poors. I don’t recall having seen a plural of the nouning poor (as in the poor ‘poor people’), but there are a fair number of uses on the net that seem to be from native speakers of English.

… I suspect that poors arises from attempts to “fix” the nouning poor, which is plural in both sense and syntax, but lacks an inflectional mark of the plural (that is, it’s a species of “zero plural”).

11/22/15: Big game:

big game

on another noun game

Morphosyntactic note: this noun is a count noun that occurs only in the plural (Lots of game were gathered at the waterhole; *One game was stalking Henry), and it’s a zero-plural at that.

6/9/16: Tom Toro:

Tom Toro

[A cartoon:] On zero plurals in English (one fish, two fishone deer, two deerone moose, two moose). Well, people play with mooses (analogous to one noose, two nooses) and even meese (analogous to one goose, two geese).

2/26/17: An ambiguity you might not have noticed:

An ambiguity you might not have noticed

It seems that Jedi almost always has a “zero plural” (like, say, sheep in English). In an enormous number of the world’s languages — Japanese, for example (which is relevant here) — there are no distinct morphological forms for nouns denoting an individual and those denoting a multiplicity.

(Nouns borrowed into English from such languages sometimes preserve a single form for both semantics, but sometimes accommodate to the regular system of English inflection: either one emoji, many emoji or one emoji, many emojis.)

1/19/21: pair of jockstrap:

pair of jockstrap

zero plural in jockstrap?

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