Plurale Tantum in English Grammar

A pair of scissors

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Plurale tantum is a noun that appears only in the plural and doesn't ordinarily have a singular form (for example, jeans, pajamas, tweezers, shears, and scissors). Also known as a lexical plural. Plural: pluralia tantum. Jeans, scissors, trousers, and glasses are great examples of plural tantum nouns in the English language.

Singular Tantum

A noun that appears only in the singular form--such as dirt--is known as singulare tantum.

Etymology of Plural Tantum

Latin for "plural only"

Examples and Observations

"Richard Lederer [in Crazy English, 1990] asks, 'Doesn't it seem just a little loopy that we can make amends but never just one amend; that no matter how carefully we comb through the annals of history, we can never discover just one annal; that we can never pull a shenanigan, be in a doldrum, or get a jitter, a willy, a delerium tremen, a jimjam, or a heebie-jeebie?' Lederer is alluding to pluralia tantum: Nouns that are always plural. Because they are not the result of pluralizing a singular, the complete plural form, -s and all, has to be stored in memory. Pluralia tantum in a sense are irregular regulars, and indeed they are happy to appear inside compounds: almsgiver (not almgiver), arms race (not arm race), blues rocker (not blue rocker), clothesbrush, Humanities department, jeans maker, newsmaker, oddsmaker, painstaking."
(Steven Pinker, Words and Rules. Basic Books, 1999)

Items of Clothing

"Let's take a look at other pluralia tantum in the pants/trousers family:(Mark Liberman, Language Log, Feb. 15, 2007)

  • Outergarments: pants (orig. pantaloons), trousers, slacks, breeches/britches, bloomers, jeans, dungarees, bell bottoms, chinos, tights, shorts, trunks, Bermudas (extended to brand names: Levis, 501s, Wranglers, Calvins)
  • Undergarments: underpants, long johns, skivvies, drawers, panties, knickers, boxers, briefs, undies, tighty-whities (extended to brand names: BVDs, Fruit of the Looms, Jockeys)"

How to Turn Lexical Plurals Into Count Nouns

"Nouns for articles of dress consisting of two parts are also treated as plural:

[A] Where ​are my trousers?
[B] They are in the bedroom where you put them.

But such plural nouns can be 'turned into' ordinary count nouns by means of a pair of or pairs of:

I need to buy a new pair of trousers.
How many pairs of blue jeans do you have?"

(Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik, A Communicative Grammar of English, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2013)

Lexical Concepts, Not Linguistic Classes

"The definitional property of having no singular turns out to be shallow and sometimes accidental, often (as in English) practically impossible to define and circumscribe. The state of affairs resembles the status of the mass-count distinction. . . . While they remain necessary as descriptive concepts, mass and count cannot be defined as grammatical properties of lexical items outside of a context, as Borer (2005) cogently shows. In the same way, I think, pluralia and singularia tantum are indispensable descriptive concepts, but they are not genuine linguistic classes. Therefore, we cannot build a notion of lexical plurals around that of pluralia tantum."
(Paolo Acquaviva, Lexical Plurals: A Morphosemantic Approach. Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Plurale Tantum in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Plurale Tantum in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Plurale Tantum in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).