Column: The perplexing plural nounimal kingdom


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Now, I know “nounimal” isn’t a word (yet), but it made you look twice, didn’t it?

And now you’re reading this, unaware that you’re about to get a lesson in irregular plural nouns. Lucky you.

I was going to write an entire column on irregular plural nouns, that is, nouns that don’t follow traditional rules of pluralization. The more I got into it, the more I found animals break the rules way more than other nouns. Why is that? Maybe it’s because they’re animals, and most of them haven’t yet learned to speak English.

With most nouns, you can simply add an “s” or “es” to the end to make plurals. Not so with irregular nouns. There’s an entire category of irregular plural nouns whose singular form end in “f,” but to make them plural you take away the “f” and add “ves.” In the animal category, calf and wolf become calves and wolves.

A second category of irregular nouns is made plural by changing vowels, changing the word, or adding a different ending altogether. These (in the animal kingdom) include mouse and mice, ox and oxen and goose and geese.

But if goose becomes geese, why doesn’t moose become meese? These nouns are wild; they don’t follow the rules. That leads us to a big category of nouns that simply stay the same when pluralized. The list includes most fish like salmon, shrimp, cod, tuna and trout, other animals like bison, elk, deer, sheep, swine, buffalo, quail and antelope. Some of these also have traditional “s” and “es” endings viewed as acceptable by whichever governing body makes and breaks the plural rules of English (do they go by a majority vote or simply a plurality?). It’s total nounsense.

Normally, I’d offer some kind of rule to help you remember each animal’s plural forms. What’s the best way to remember these? Practice. Imagine poor Noah, loading up the ark with all these animals’ persnickety plural forms. At a certain point he probably simply grouped them all by species, when he thought to himself: What’s the plural of species? Species. Oh, deer.