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12 Nouns That Are Always Plural

Some nouns, like "jeans," are only used in the plural form. If you’re a native English speaker, you might not have noticed you’re using them. But here are 12 examples that you’ve almost certainly said – and how they ended up as "pluralia tantum."

By
Simon Thomas, writing for
5-minute read
Episode #873

If you’re deep in the world of fashion influencers on Instagram, or have ever caught an episode of a fashion reality show, then you might have heard phrases like "My go-to evening look is a smoky eye and a red lip," or "This outfit could be completed with a tailored pant." If you have never done those things, then bear with me anyway. You get the idea: sometimes there is an assumption of an implied plural when singular versions of words are used. You’d have to be pretty avant-garde to put lipstick on only one lip or eye make-up on only one eye. 

While you’d be more likely to refer to eyes, lips, and trousers outside of fashion terminology, we’re all familiar with what one eye looks like. But what is a singular pant or, for British listeners, trouser? They don’t exist. 

"Pants," when referring to the clothing you’d pop on your legs, is an example of a "plurale tantum." That’s Latin for "plural only." In other words, a noun that is used only in plural form. If you’re a native English speaker, you might not even have noticed you’re using them. But here are a whole load of examples that you’ve almost certainly said – and how they ended up as "pluralia tantum."

1. Scissors

The first known uses of the word "scissors" are actually singular – spelled in a variety of ways, including starting with "cy." That was in the 15th century, and the plural version quickly overtook the former in popularity. While you’d still hear "scissor" as a verb, or to form a compound noun like "scissor kick," you’re unlikely to come across a single scissor. The same is true of many other two-bladed tools – like "pliers," "forceps," "shears," "tweezers" and "tongs."

2. Glasses

When we’re talking about eyewear, the word "glasses" is like "spectacles," "goggles," or "binoculars": today, you’ll only hear them used as plurals. Even those who favor talking about a "red lip" don’t seem to have adopted a "tortoiseshell glass" as of yet. Things get a bit more complex if you pop "a pair of" in front of the words. The "a" suggests you should treat "a pair of glasses" as singular, but research shows that you’re equally likely to come across "a pair of glasses are" as "a pair of glasses is."

3. Jeans

Moving on to bottoms, lots of the names for two-legged garments are pluralia tantum. We have "overalls," "leggings," "shorts," "pants," "tights," and "trousers" – but let’s look at "jeans." This word is an abbreviation of the French "jean fustian," for the Italian city Genoa – fustian being a twilled cotton cloth. While jeans are usually made of denim today, the name stuck. And, no, there has never been a single "jean" when it comes to clothes.

4. Clothes

Sticking with the world of attire, we speak of "clothes" but never of a single "clothe." "Clothe" exists as a verb, and "cloth" is a common singular noun – but isn’t used to mean "a garment." Not anymore, at least. In the late-14th century, "cloth" was indeed used to mean a single garment. You’ll find that in "Piers Plowman" and the works of Chaucer. Nowadays, you’d have to use "an article of clothing" to get the same meaning.

5. Marginalia

So far all these pluralia tantum end in "s," but that needn’t be the case. "Marginalia," meaning notes written in the margins of a text, is another example. In this instance, the fact that it’s only used in the plural isn’t a case of linguistic evolution. Rather, it’s a case of selective borrowing. "Marginalia" is taken directly from Latin, which also had the singular "marginalis" – but, for whatever reason, English never took "marginalis." 

Other Latin borrowings that are pluralia tantum include "juvenilia," meaning works produced by an author or artist while still young, and "literati," meaning well-educated people who are interested in literature.

6. Shenanigans

A plurale tantum doesn’t have to be a tangible object. Another example is the word "shenanigans." It means "secret or dishonest activity or maneuvering," or "silly or high-spirited behavior," but its etymological origins aren’t clear. What is known is that its earliest known use, in a mid-19th century article, is in the singular "shenanigan." The singular was in use for another hundred years, but in recent decades, you’ll only find the plural "shenanigans."

7. Odds

What are the odds? Whether you’re talking about gambling, chance, or an argument where you’re "at odds" with someone else, you won’t get a single "odd." As you might expect, this plurale tantum comes from the adjective "odd," originally with the idea of "unequal things." This broadened into various ideas of difference – particularly in likelihood and probability.

8. Loggerheads

If you’re into marine biology, you might know that the singular "loggerhead" does exist – it’s a variety of turtle. But you’re more likely to find it used in the phrase "at loggerheads," meaning "in violent dispute or disagreement." Even the mildest argument can’t be termed "at loggerhead," though – there’s no singular version. 

It has been suggested that this use of "loggerheads" relates to a late-17th-century sense of "loggerhead" meaning "long-handled iron instrument for heating liquids and tar," when wielded as a weapon. 

9. Amends

After being at loggerheads, you can – and often should – make "amends," but you can’t make an "amend." While "amend" exists as a verb, the noun is borrowed from the Old French "amendes," meaning a penalty or fine. In Old French there was also a singular "amende," but that didn’t find its way into English.

10. Smithereens

Next, if "smithereens" means "small pieces," would one small piece be called a "smithereen"? You’ve guessed it – no. The word is probably from the Irish "smidirín," but only the plural exists in English. It’s almost always used in the context of destruction, such as "the vase was smashed into smithereens." Some people use "smithers" instead of "smithereens" – but, again, there’s no such thing as a single "smither."

11. Folk

Next, consider this phrase: "There’s nowt so queer as folk." It's an expression of surprise or disapproval at the odd things people do, and it’s originally from the north of England, though it's now used more widely. "Folk" is a little unusual as a plurale tantum, because you can use either "folk" or "folks" – such as an "old folks’ home" – but either is a plural. There’s no such thing as a single "folk."

12. Thanks

Finally, thanks for reading – and, yes, "thanks" is the final plurale tantum. You’d find "thank" in the words "thank you," of course, but you wouldn’t give someone a single "thank." Unless, that is, you were in Ancient Britain and used the Old English "thanc," ending in a "c," from which the modern word derived.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Simon Thomas, writing for Grammar Girl

Simon Thomas has been blogging about books since 2007, with a focus on novels by women from between the World Wars. He is also the co-host of the podcast "Tea or Books?" where they debate the difficult decisions of books and reading. You can find him at stuckinabook.com.