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Sheep, Fish, and Cattle

Why do you think that these nouns resisted the temptation of adding an “s” to pluralize? Like Sheeps, Fishes, or Cattles. How was it decided that they do not have plural forms? And for what reason? And ultimately, if these nouns function fine without the plural forms, then why do we even need plural forms for any other nouns?

  • January 17, 2003
  • Posted by Dyske
  • Filed in Grammar

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I suspect the reason why some words avoided the standard plural "s" is that they came into English from other languages, or that they were never actually used in the plural form, or mainly that they are already a plural word, and it is actually the singular that is different:

Cattle already means a herd of animal. There can really be no such thing as a singular cattle. Then it becomes a head of cattle, or a cow or whatever. Sheep for the same reason, or fish.

"Jim! Take two heads to the western pasture and wait for the rest of us to catch up!" (A wild west quote perhaps?)

Although I suspect that 90% of all English users say "Fishes"... (users, not only British people and speakers of Oxford English!).

But doubtlessly, there are others who know more about this than I, so speak up!

bobbygeorge31 January 18, 2003, 6:49am

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In terms of cattle, it's due to the word's root in chattel/capital, i.e. an uncountable concept. Initially the word applied to any livestock (another uncountable) and referred to the animals in their role as monetary possessions.

I have no answer for the sheep/fish conundrum however.

iansage January 18, 2003, 1:14pm

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Robert is on the right track, though in the wrong direction. These words are not imports - they come from old English.

Looking into the grammatical structures of old and middle English should turn up a more complete answer. My guess is that it is the practice of adding 's' that is the import.

HonBancho January 19, 2003, 9:42pm

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Dug around a little bit and found a more useful answer: old English, like German, had several classes of nouns, some of which were made plural by endings other than -s (e.g. oxen). The words mentioned here must have evolved from such words.

A handy online reference:

HonBancho January 19, 2003, 10:16pm

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English has a bunch of irregular nouns left over from its amalgamation and transformation of several languages into Middle and then Modern English. It's been losing them gradually.

There are no simple rules for which nouns have irregular plurals. Your best bet is to own a copy of the Oxford English Diction and look them up on a case-by-case basis. Nouns can have quite surprising personal histories.

Regarding "cattle": I've known cattlemen out west. They wouldn't say "two heads of cattle." The word is "head": "Company's coming. Take a couple head of cattle up the wash so Cook can get started on 'em."

tnh March 17, 2003, 4:11pm

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oh and its pluralise not pluralize :}

James March 17, 2003, 4:47pm

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Did you know that there is a plural of "beef"? It's "beeves." No joke, look it up at

web March 17, 2003, 9:30pm

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Actually, plural for "fish" *is* "fishes" if you are referring to multiple types of fish. Otherwise, multiple fish of the same type uses the word "fish".

Why that became a rule is beyond me.

m_j_snyder March 18, 2003, 5:56am

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mike: The plural of fish *is* fish. The plural of fish *is* fishes also. The variety of species is of as much import as whether they're called George collectively or individually.

Sheeps? Next thing I'll be reading about cannons and agendas, etc. *despair*

Hobes July 10, 2003, 1:30am

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People are so freakin crazy to say, "where are you AT?" when all you really need to say is, "where are you?"
Maybe it's just people in crazy L.A.
Someone help me out here.

mendozaalpha September 26, 2003, 11:36pm

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Teresa is right.

M Stevenson April 10, 2004, 11:54pm

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Teresa is always right :)

speedwell2 April 12, 2004, 6:15am

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Technically speaking, 'fish' and 'sheep' have the same form when they are singular and plural. One of the linguistic theories says that the '-s' ending is invisible in spelling but it's present morphologically, so what is actually added to 'fish' and 'sheep' to make them plural is so called zero or empty morpheme. 'Cattle' is semantically a collective noun so a visible marker of plurality '-s' seems to be redundant here. I don't know how much this explains to you but I believe this is the case. By the way, idiosyncracies and irregularities in our mother tongues are what, we, speakers of languages 'love'.

marta August 31, 2004, 2:33am

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So we agree on sheep and fish. What about deer? "Where the deer and the antelope play." That sounds plural to me. I'm going crazy trying to think of other examples.

lynettesooter March 10, 2010, 2:27pm

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Head? I love it. That's great, especially since I never would have thought of it, but it is so familiar and obvious once you see an example. Ok, I've thought of a few and been playing with Google, so here are a few good ones I found:

Head, moose, elk, trout, salmon, tuna, shrimp, squid (a lot of animals, eh?), series, species, aircraft, hovercraft, cannon, offspring, you.

Some of the words I mentioned can be pluralized with or without the -s. I purposely did not list words whose plural is spelled the same but pronounced differently (like chassis or corps). I also tried to avoid mass nouns (although, offspring may be questionable. One could make a case for it really being a mass noun). I tried to avoid plural words that describe singular things (like pants and scissors). I was tempted to add "hair", since it can be singular and seemingly plural, but when used without an -s to mean more than one hair, we're back to a mass noun again, and, therefore, singlular.

What fun.

porsche March 10, 2010, 6:04pm

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