Double Plurals in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Variety of multi coloured dice
Dice or dices?. Anthony Bradshaw / Getty Images

A double plural is the plural form of a noun with an additional plural ending (usually -s) attached — for example, candelabras (singular, candelabrum; plural, candelabra) or sixpences (singular, penny; plural, pence).

In addition, the term double plural is occasionally used to refer to a noun with two plurals that differ in meaning, such as brothers and brethren (plurals of brother).

Examples and Observations:

  • "In the light of the debate between environmental advocates and oil industries, the state officials discovered that the flooding had also released other bacterias that pose a serious health threat."
    ("Colorado Flooding Exposes Huge Environmental Damage." Digital Journal, September 28, 2013)

    "Bacteria is the Latin plural form [of bacterium]. In formal and scientific writing, it is always treated as plural and used with a plural verb: 'These bacteria are clearly visible when stained.'

    "In everyday English, bacteria is also used as a singular noun meaning a strain of bacteria: 'They said it was a bacteria, not a virus.' This singular use has generated a double plural: bacterias. Bacterias, meaning strains of bacteria, is fairly common in journalism, but not suited for technical or formal writing."
    (Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Paparazzi(s)
    "Back through the system with the riffraff again
    Fiends on the floor scratching again
    Paparazzis with their cameras snapping them..."
    (Jay-Z, "99 Problems." The Black Album, 2004)

    "paparazzi (photographers who follow celebrities, often aggressively, in hopes of snapping candid photos) is a plural; paparazzo is the singular. Originally Italian — invented for Frederico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita (1960) — the term first surfaced in English in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, because the singular form is so rare, some writers have begun using the misbegotten double plural *paparazzis..."
    (Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, 2009)

From Old English to Modern English

  • "Modern English breeches is a double plural (OE nominative singular broc 'trouser,' nominative plural brec), as is ... kine (OE nominative singular cu 'cow,' nominative plural cy with the addition of the plural -n from words like oxen)." (John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • "OE cildru 'children' belonged to a very small minor class of neuter nouns having a plural in -ru; the /r/ has survived in PDE [present-day English], but an additional weak -n plural has been added, giving PDE children a double plural." (Celia M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2012)

    Kate Burridge on Double Plurals

    • "Occasionally, people using incident in the plural give it a double plural — incidentses. Incidents doesn't sound plural enough — just as quince (in 1300s one coyn and many coyns) didn't for early English speakers (Quinces is historically a double plural)." (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)
    • "They stopped and formed a semicircle around the microphone. 'Everywhere there is a crisis,' they sang together. 'Every time they throw the dices.'"
      (Richard Lockridge, Murder Roundabout, 1966)
    • "This same process is currently affecting the word dice. Dice was traditionally the plural of die 'small cube with six faces,' but is now being reinterpreted as singular. In this case we've also got a split happening. In specialist contexts die is still being used as a singular noun for 'metal stamp for coining.' The dice used in gaming has a new reformulated plural, technically a double plural, dices (though some speakers still use dice as plural) ...
    • "When speakers don't feel words to be plural enough, they add another plural marker for good measure."
      (Kate Burridge, Blooming English: Observations on the Roots, Cultivation and Hybrids of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

      Double Plurals in Irish English

      • "Both [Terence Patrick] Dolan [in A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, 2006] and [Jiro] Taniguchi [in A Grammatical Analysis of Artistic Representation of Irish English, 1972] ... draw attention to double plural forms (or what Taniguchi calls 'vulgar' forms) which also occasionally appear in Irish English. These involve the addition of /əz/ to existing plurals which end in -s. Dolan offers the examples of bellowses for bellows and galluses for gallus, an obsolete form of the word gallows meaning 'braces' . ... Taniguchi, on the other hand, cites newses as a plural for news (1972: 10). While I have not encountered the latter form, I have frequently heard other forms, such as pantses and knickerses. What is more, the film corpus displays the forms chipses and barrackses . ..."
        (Shane Walshe, "Irish English as Represented in Film." Diss., Peter Lang GmbH, 2009)
      • "My mother used always to laugh because when they met Mrs. Hogan used to say 'any newses' and look up at her, with that wild stare, opening her mouth to show the big gaps between her front teeth, but the 'newses' had at last come to her own door, and though she must have minded dreadfully she seemed vexed more than ashamed, as if it was inconvenience rather than disgrace that had hit her."
        (Edna O'Brien, "A Scandalous Woman." Stories by Contemporary Irish Women, ed. by Daniel J. Casey and Linda M. Casey. Syracuse University Press, 1990)

      Double Plurals in Russian Anglicisms

      • "In general, words tend to be borrowed as unanalysed wholes, their internal structure being opaque to the borrower. Russian speakers are therefore often not aware of the meaning of the English plural morpheme -s; this can lead to double plural marking through the addition of a Russian inflection to an English plural; as in pampersy, dzhinsy, chipsy." (Tamara Maximova, "Russian." English in Europe, ed. by Manfred Görlach. Oxford University Press, 2002)

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      Nordquist, Richard. "Double Plurals in English." ThoughtCo, Sep. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/double-plural-grammar-1690409. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 22). Double Plurals in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/double-plural-grammar-1690409 Nordquist, Richard. "Double Plurals in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/double-plural-grammar-1690409 (accessed May 20, 2018).