Irregular Plural (Nouns)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

bearded man holding a golden goose and its egg
The nouns man and goose have irregular plural forms (men and geese).

 Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

In English grammar, an irregular plural is a noun that does not form its plural simply by adding the suffix -s or -es to the base.

Although most count nouns in English have regular plurals, some nouns (such as sheep) don't have separate plural forms while others (such as woman and half) form the plural by changing an internal vowel (women) or consonant (halves).

Examples and Observations

  • "All around us on each side of the river were sheep, cattle, horses, wagons, men, women and children—more cattle and sheep than I ever saw before in my life: drove after drove, thousands, yes, tens of thousands."(Rebecca Ketcham, quoted by Lillian Schlissel in Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. Schocken Books, 1992)
  • "Farmers trekked into town with their children and wives streaming around them." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "There was a discipline and purpose about the wolves, almost like divisions of an army preparing for battle." (John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things. Atria, 2006)
  • "It is incredibly easy to update tests, quizzes, syllabi, handouts, and parent letters with simple 'cut and paste' strategies." (Mary C. Clement,First. Scarecrow, 2005) Time in the High School Classroom
  • "Students hear several series of familiar patterns in various combinations and recognize the tonality (major or minor) of each series." (Eric Bluestine, The Ways Children Learn Music. GIA, 2000)
  • "Parentheses come in pairs." (Bill Walsh, Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. St. Martin's Press, 2013)
  • "[O]ne can see engravings, paintings, and carvings in the soft surface of the rock. Most of the figures represented are deer and bison, primary food sources for the cave's inhabitants." (Trudy Ring et al., International Dictionary of Historic Places: Southern Europe. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1995)
  • "I have hired a programmer to set up a customized version of Access, specifically to cross-index my patients, including the usual demographic data, diagnoses, medications, referrals, and procedures." (Phil R. Manning and Lois DeBakey, ​Medicine: Preserving the Passion in the 21st Century, 2nd ed. Springer, 2004)
  • "'If the plural of loaf is loaves, what's the plural of oaf?' she says. 'Why isn't it oaves?' George realizes that a good deal of what she says is directed not to him or to any other listener but simply to herself." (Margaret Atwood, Wilderness Tips. Doubleday, 1991)

Nouns With Two Plural Forms

"Irregular plural nouns are generally nouns that follow older patterns of English or are nouns that have been borrowed from Latin or Greek and thus take the Latin or Greek plural formation. In the case of words that have been borrowed from Latin or Greek, there is a tendency for them to adopt over time the regular English plural -s inflection. Therefore, we see words such as syllabus that actually have two plural forms, the original syllabi and the English syllabuses." (Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers. Springer, 2008)

Irregular Nouns With New Meanings

"When a word with an irregular plural is given a new meaning, it often takes a regular plural. So, although leaves is the usual plural of leaf, the Toronto hockey team is called the Maple Leafs, a tea in Taiwan is called Leafs and a Swedish band is called Fallen Leafs. The normal regular plural for mouse must be mice, yet computer mice gives a strange image of little creatures dashing about the mouse-pad rather than the new regular plural, computer mouses; nevertheless, Dell computers use mice on their website. . . . Interestingly, the same regularization effect applies to the pronunciation of irregular spellings: salmon is said without an 'l' but salmonella clearly has one." (Vivian Cook, All in a Word. Melville House, 2010)

Top 10 Mistakes Using Nouns With Irregular Plurals

"The following list shows the ten nouns with irregular plural forms that cause the most difficulty for advanced learners of English. The words on the left show the singular form of the noun and the words on the right show the correct plural form:

1. life - lives
2. child - children
3. belief - beliefs
4. country - countries
5. company - companies
6. hero - heroes
7. wife - wives
8. city - cities
9. sheep - sheep
10. activity - activities

Note that in [most dictionaries] an entry for a noun with an irregular plural form will show the plural form at the start of the entry." (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

The Lighter Side of Irregular Plurals

  • "This is a man who thinks the plural of goose is sheep."
    (Lois Griffin speaking about Peter Griffin in "Running Mates." Family Guy, 2000)
  • "'My boy,' said the school inspector, 'what's the plural of mouse?'
    "'Mice,' said Jimmie.
    "'Right,' said the inspector. 'And now, what is the plural of baby?'
    "'Twins!' said Jimmie."
    (Personal Efficiency, Vol. 13, 1923)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Irregular Plural (Nouns)." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, January 26). Irregular Plural (Nouns). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Irregular Plural (Nouns)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).