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Why are some single objects plural?

Why is it that we name some single objects as if they were plural? I’m thinking of for example a pair of jeans - you can’t buy one jean can you? But a sweater, which has the same construction - one body and two extensions for limbs - is not a pair of sweaters. A pair of scissors makes a little more sense, and I believe that tailors call them ‘a scissor’ anyway. The example of bicycle forks is also interesting - in the U.S. a bicycle has a fork to hold the front wheel, whereas in the U.K. we hold on to our front wheels via ‘forks’ or a pair of forks.

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I suspect the jeans issue is due to trousers having begun life as two separate leg covers which were subsequently joined together. Nevertheless, it was commonplace (when such existed) for gentlemen's outfitters to refer to "a trouser".

As for scissors, the Danish _saks_ is singular - but a scissor is very hard for my brain!

semiotek October 7, 2010 @ 7:27AM

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That's a great response, I hadn't thought of that. Thanks a lot.

Ian4 October 7, 2010 @ 1:35PM

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quarters means section in the sense of sleeping or office or living quarters. ships are often described as having quarters. it does not have to mean 25% of anything. so head quarters and headquarters is simply the main or primary of the various sections.

Steve1 October 8, 2010 @ 7:40PM

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How about the new trend of saying "pant" in clothing catalogs? For some reason that seems pretentious and annoying to me even though, as Ian points out, it's a single object - "jean" or "pant".

"Check out our latest hipster pant!"

jstraley December 1, 2010 @ 5:38PM

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I was talking about this topic just two days ago with a Polish friend of mine. They have the same this going on with the word 'door'.It doesn't exist in a singular form - it's always 'doors', even if there's only one door. Languages are just wild and wily things! p.s. what a great site!

snowmonkey13 December 7, 2010 @ 3:26AM

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There are several things that refer to a single object but take a plural construction, not just "pants" and "trousers." There are "scissors," "pliers," "shears," "tweezers," and no doubt others.

The standard English way to refer to just one of such a thing is to attach the phrase "a pair of" in front and use a singular verb ("pair" is a singular noun), not to drop the "s" or otherwise try to create a singular noun.

When one does not use the "a pair of" phrase, one is forced to use a plural verb and live with the numeric ambiguity ("my pants are dirty"). Sometimes English, as with all languages, is just that way (inconsistent among other things).

fmerton December 7, 2010 @ 12:14PM

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Interesting every example you mention has two of something. So, are they plural ? or do they just end in "s" ? or are they verb construction (as in the case of "shears") ?

As someone mentioned, I know it's different in non-English languages, similar to count nouns v. mass nouns, how zero is treated. For a laugh, read about Ukranian forms of plural.

Aaron2 December 9, 2010 @ 5:38PM

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Gee, I would have thought it was fairly obvious. Things like scissors, pliers, etc., are plural because they are clearly pairs of objects. Scissors consist of two cutting blades held together by a pivot. Pliers consist of two plying arms joined by a pivot. Etc., etc.,...

porsche December 13, 2010 @ 3:35AM

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Yes, completely obvious, sorry for asking! Now I just need to go and fix my bike - the fork (U.S. English) or forks (U.K. English) is/are broken. It's cold outside, so I'll be wearing my sweater (singular), which will keep my two arms warm, and my trousers (plural) to keep my two legs warm. To keep clean, I would wear my pair of overalls - unfortunately I can't find the pivot to hold them together. Lol.

Ian4 December 13, 2010 @ 10:25AM

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I am not quite sure you mean what you seem to be saying, but remember that a pair of scissors or a pair of pliers, etc., is only a single thing, and takes a singular verb. That you have to use a plural verb when you don't use the "a pair of" phrase, even though you may be speaking of only one of the object, is illogical. At any rate it presents a problem to my Vietnamese students (but then their language does not force them to deal with number unless they want to).

Complicating matters are other objects that come in pairs (shoes, boots, socks, gloves, mittens. and earrings) where one can use a singular when talking about just one of the object or one can take a matching two of them and treat them as a single object by using the "a pair of" phrase. I think this is where the use of "a pair of" for things like pants came from, even though it is illogical to think of pants as being a matched pair (only native English speakers seem able to do it).

The seeming duality of such objects is no doubt part of the reason English evolved this way, but that does not make it rational. We cannot expect languages to be rational.

fmerton December 13, 2010 @ 10:40AM

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When we speak of a bicycle fork in the USA and the front (or back) forks in Australia and England, we are not worrying about the correctness or otherwise of the term. Fork is strictly correct, but here we are entering the realm of colloquialisms, among the most fascinating aspect of any language.

Trousers comes from the Irish and Gaelic 'trews', scissors comes from Old French 'cisoires', which itself derives from Latin 'cisoria' the plural of 'cisorium', a cutting instrument. Because it came into English from the French, it retained the final 's'.

frank January 2, 2011 @ 12:36PM

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And of course I should have written "…among the most fascinating aspects of any language."

frank January 2, 2011 @ 12:39PM

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"Fork is strictly correct" - an interesting conclusion - is there any evidence for it?

Ian4 January 5, 2011 @ 9:41AM

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Well, you could try the OED for a start. Do you have any evidence that forks is grammatically correct rather than just the colloquial use?

frank January 5, 2011 @ 9:50AM

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"Well, you could try the OED for a start."

On your advice I did! (The online version).

[3 (usually forks) each of a pair of supports in which a bicycle or motorcycle wheel revolves.]

"Do you have any evidence that forks is grammatically correct rather than just the colloquial use?"

Well if the OED isn't enough, I would think the people who actually make the things might know what they are called. - if you don't want to click the link, it says "GRAB A PAIR OF RC31 FORKS…QUICK!" (Pace manufacture and sell bicycle forks).

So I'm still not sure that "fork is strictly correct" is strictly correct.

Ian4 January 5, 2011 @ 5:41PM

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Okay - the OED paper version gives fork as [chiefly] US, forks as Australian and English. A pair of forks would properly refer to the back and front fork or two of each, and just because the manufacturer's brochure calls them forks (if they are indeed referring to the singular) doesn't make it correct – how many times have you seen XXX Boys' School on the front of a school building? – unless of course the catalogue has several pages of front and back forks. A fork is something that by its nature has two (or more) tines or prongs and to say "a pair of forks" makes for tautology. You could, colloquially speaking, buy a set of forks – or a pair – for your treadly, but it is incorrect grammatically. Incidentally, I grew up in Western Australia using forks to mean the things on the back and front of a bike and still do – and if I'm writing colloquially I'd use it, but not otherwise. The USA retains many quaint and sometimes archaic anglicisms in its dialect. Close to where I live is a place named "The Forks of the Elkhorn" which is beautifully correct.

frank January 5, 2011 @ 6:03PM

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I guess we're back to the question as I originally asked it then. But I still don't understand how, when the OED gives forks as the correct form in the UK and Australia you're still claiming that as incorrect. And yes, of course the manufacturer means a single set of front forks, (the back forks are part of the frame and can't be bought separately) and specifically calls them a pair of forks. My question was more about how that arose and why it's different and why we call single things such as forks, trousers and scissors by a plural form. I guess I wasn't really expecting the response that in certain cases the OED and everyone in England is simply wrong, but it's an interesting viewpoint nevertheless.

Ian4 January 5, 2011 @ 10:49PM

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Christ on a crutch, Ian; don't come down the ladder! The OED doesn't comment on the correctness or otherwise of usage – that's for other references – but records a word's existence.

There's heaps of everyday terms (and there's one right at the beginning of this sentence) that are accepted as, or thought to be, correct when in fact they're not; and the whys and wherefores of each would make an interesting study in itself. As I wrote before, "Boys' [and Girls'] School" when part of a proper noun; "Children's Hospital" ditto; an hotel/hypothesis/historical, ad infinitum. Strictly speaking, forks is incorrect when we speak of the front forks of a pushbike, but it's in the dictionary because it's in common use.

The reason I like to play with these things is that I find language fascinating, especially dialect, spelling variations and colloquialisms – and the bait's cheap.

frank January 6, 2011 @ 11:33AM

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You see this is where my understanding falls down, and I'm sorry if I'm being a bit thick here. "Strictly speaking forks is incorrect when we speak of the front forks of a pushbike".

So forks are defined as such in the OED. The word is in extensive and common usage, including by the makers of such things. So what reasons are there for saying it's incorrect? How could it achieve correctness? After all, words haven't been around for ever - don't they achieve correctness firstly by coming into common usage, then appearing in a dictionary, and that's it? Or is there some other secret process they need to go through before they are deemed 'correct'?

Incidentally, and still playing around with the word, when you come to a fork in the road, you can choose between taking the left fork or the right fork. But you only came to one fork.....

Ian4 January 6, 2011 @ 2:48PM

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It is indeed incorrect, strictly speaking, but common usage gives it credibility in dialect/colloquial language. One does take the left or right fork of a fork, though again, strictly speaking, it's incorrect. An eating fork has several tines, as do a forky deer's antlers. In the US they speak of a fork in a river and then take the left or right branch. If we wanted to be really super correct and pedantic we would take the left path [of the road], in the same way that when we come to a crossroad we would go straight ahead or take the left or right path.

Words don't achieve correctness by being in a dictionary – dictionaries simply record the way words are used during the period of that particular edition, often with supplementary lists of words that may be changing their meanings. Thee, thou and thine are still in the dictionary though only poets now use them – which is a shame since they add affection to language.

frank January 6, 2011 @ 3:14PM

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OK, I'm just going to ask once more before I give up. Why is it 'incorrect'? Who says it's incorrect? What evidence is there anywhere that it's incorrect? Just you saying a thousand times that 'strictly speaking it's incorrect' just isn't doing it for me.

Ian4 January 6, 2011 @ 4:02PM

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Grammarians whose job it is to compile texts on the subject. A fork, in, of or on anything, is singular. A fork in the road – though it may have several over its length and though colloquially we take the left or right fork in some countries. A hay fork, a garden fork, a forked stick, a forky deer and a table fork are all singular no matter how many tines, clefts, branches or prongs they may have. The front fork on a bicycle, though colloquially often referred to as "the forks", is still a singular word and a single structure.
"Forks on a bike" may be commonplace but in the grammatical sense to speak of the front forks on a bicycle is wrong because forks is the plural of fork. It's like saying "she gave birth to a pair of twins", common in speech but not right.

frank January 6, 2011 @ 5:49PM

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Ah, that's ok then, there is somewhere a mysterious police force of 'grammarians' who have decided that the use of the plural for bicycle forks is strictly incorrect. I wonder if their judgements are published anywhere, or are they only discoverable at the end of long discussion threads when all other sources of evidence to support an unsubstantiated assertion have been exhausted lol.

And 'a pair of twins' - well I haven't heard it said, and anyway this thread is about singular objects referred to as plural. But just to indulge the digression - trousers only come with two legs (btw, they have the same construction as bicycle forks, one joined part at the top and two identical legs lol, do the grammarians know that, or are they above such worldly matters as clothes), the same as twins only come in twos. So if you agree with the argument that a pair of twins is 4 people, you would also say that a pair of trousers is 4 legs, right?

Ian4 January 7, 2011 @ 11:17AM

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Well you could try looking up some references. Pair of twins or two twin boys/girls – you haven't heard it? You should listen to some of the news broadcasts round here.

A pair of trousers is singularly interesting if you'll pardon the pun - trews (frae which the English word comes) like breeches (and the Norse/Germanic breeks) were leggings, one for each leg, held up at the waist by ties – somewhat in the manner of modern-day chaps (colloquial abbreviation for US chaperejos from the Mexican/Spanish chaparreros from chaparra) and there's a word to conjure with, it spawned a heap of children – and the response to your trouser remark is in the pun.

Where are you quartered, Ian? (See headquarters.)

English is fascinatin' stuff, ain't it?

frank January 7, 2011 @ 11:42AM

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"Well you could try looking up some references." Now I need to provide the evidence to argue against myself? Hmm.... applied to the courts it would save the prosecution a fortune lol.

My headquarters are in Nottingham, England, where Raleigh have put a pair of front forks on each of their bikes since 1887.

Ian4 January 7, 2011 @ 2:16PM

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"Forks" isn't incorrect at all, nor is it colloquial. I've only heard of the American version, "fork" until this post, but "forks" is just as logical. It just represents a different perspective. A bicycle fork can be viewed as a fork with two tines, one on each side of the front wheel. But, each "tine" is a fork in its own right. Each bit that attaches to the wheel has two tines that straddle the front wheel's axle, one fork on each side of the front wheel, two forks total.

Oh, and my "fairly obvious" comment wasn't directed at your original post, Ian. It was intended for the nearby posts above my last post.

porsche January 8, 2011 @ 10:58AM

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Forkin' hell. What have I done? You're drawing a long bow here, porsche. It is colloquial, by the way. But back to your reasoning: does this mean the back forks are three in number? Or two? Or more? Should they rightly be called the back triangles and the back forks?

frank January 8, 2011 @ 11:45AM

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No "long bow" at all. A bicycle frame is properly made up of a main triangle and a paired rear triangle. It's called a "diamond frame". The slots that hold the rear wheel axle are called "rear fork ends" There are two. The rear triangles are not commonly referred to as a fork.

porsche January 8, 2011 @ 8:09PM

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