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Noun Errors

Nouns You might think something as basic as a noun would be foolproof. Nope! Review and memorize the following information about "when good nouns go bad," which will help you to complete the related skills exercises.

IRREGULAR PLURALS

The most common error afflicting nouns involves an error of pluralization. Though most nouns are made plural by the addition of "-s," a minuscule list of nouns (compared to the tens of thousands of nouns in the English language) form plurals irregularly, for various reasons.  Some, however, have unusual plural forms because they are of direct Latin, Greek, or French origin.

Singular . . . . . Plural

  • alumnus / alumna . . . . . alumni / alumnae
  • analysis . . . . . analyses
  • antenna . . . . . antennae / antennas
  • appendix . . . . . appendices
  • axis . . . . . axes
  • bacterium . . . . . bacteria
  • basis . . . . . bases
  • beau . . . . . beaux
  • bureau . . . . . bureaux / bureaus
  • cactus . . . . . cacti
  • child . . . . . children
  • corpus . . . . . corpora
  • crisis . . . . . crises
  • criterion . . . . . criteria
  • curriculum . . . . . curricula
  • datum . . . . . data
  • deer . . . . . deer
  • diagnosis . . . . . diagnoses
  • ellipsis . . . . . ellipses
  • fish . . . . . fish
  • focus . . . . . foci / focuses
  • foot . . . . . feet
  • formula . . . . . formulae / formulas
  • fungus . . . . . fungi / funguses
  • genus . . . . . genera
  • goose . . . . . geese
  • graffito . . . . . graffiti
  • hypothesis . . . . . hypotheses
  • index . . . . . indices / indexes
  • louse . . . . . lice
  • man . . . . . men
  • matrix . . . . . matrices / matrixes
  • means . . . . . means
  • medium . . . . . media
  • memorandum . . . . . memoranda
  • mouse . . . . . mice
  • nebula . . . . . nebulae
  • nucleus . . . . . nuclei
  • oasis . . . . . oases
  • octopus . . . . . octopi
  • offspring . . . . . offspring
  • ox . . . . . oxen
  • paparazzo . . . . . paparazzi
  • paralysis . . . . . paralyses
  • parenthesis . . . . . parentheses
  • phenomenon . . . . . phenomena
  • plateau . . . . . plateaus / plateaux
  • portmanteau . . . . . portmanteaus /portmanteaux
  • radius . . . . . radii
  • regale . . . . . regalia
  • series . . . . . series
  • sheep . . . . . sheep
  • species . . . . . species
  • stimulus . . . . . stimuli
  • stratum . . . . . strata
  • synopsis . . . . . synopses
  • synthesis . . . . . syntheses
  • tableau . . . . . tableaux / tableaus
  • thesis . . . . . theses
  • tooth . . . . . teeth
  • vertebra . . . . . vertebrae
  • vita . . . . . vitae
  • woman . . . . . women

PLURAL-FORM SINGULARS

Certain plural nouns have come to be used as single concepts or things. Some agree with singular verb forms (e.g., "The news just repeats itself" or "This television series is awful"), but most do not.

  • barracks
  • belongings
  • effects (e.g., "gather up your effects")
  • forceps
  • furnishings
  • headquarters
  • means (e.g., "a means to the an end")
  • news
  • outskirts
  • pliers
  • scissors
  • series
  • species
  • tongs
  • trappings (e.g., "the trappings of success")

CERTAIN ARTICLES OF CLOTHING
Probably because they are made for body parts that come in pairs (arms and legs, ears), certain articles of clothing have come to be thought of as one thing acting like two. They nevertheless agree with a plural verb form (e.g., "Suspenders for men's trousers are coming back in style").

  • braces
  • earmuffs
  • jeans
  • pajamas
  • pants
  • trousers
  • shorts
  • suspenders

OPTICAL DEVICES
As with certain articles of clothing, most optical devices are made with a pair in mind—a pair of eyes, that is—so they have come to be thought of as one thing acting like two. They nevertheless agree with a plural verb form.

  • eyeglasses
  • bifocals
  • spectacles
  • binoculars
  • goggles

GAMES
Certain games with multiple iterations of the same game pieces fall into the category of plural form / singular verb ("Billiards is an enjoyable pastime").

  • billiards
  • dominoes
  • cards
  • darts
  • dice
  • jacks
  • checkers
  • quarters (a drinking game)
  • tiddlywinks
  • nine-pins

CERTAIN SUBJECTS
Subjects with plural endings also agree with singular verbs ("The physics of the subatomic world is a mystery to many"). The exception on the following list is "politics," which can take a singular or a plural verb.

  • physics
  • linguistics
  • phonetics
  • politics
  • economics
  • mathematics
  • gymnastics

CERTAIN DISEASES AND ILLNESSES
The "folk" use of English has shown a tendency to call maladies by plural nouns beginning with the definite article "the"; diarrhea, for instance is pejoratively called “the runs” or "the squirts," and a runny nose is called "the sniffles"; a bout of depression is "the blues," and so on. This same tendency is observed in some formally recognized illnesses, but they can take either singular or plural verb forms ("measles are" or "measles is").

  • delirium tremens
  • measles
  • mumps
  • rickets
  • shingles
  • shivers
  • tremors

PLURAL COMPOUNDS

Compound nouns present their own special problems for plurals, especially if they're hyphenated. To be fair, most compound nouns follow the rules and add "-s," but a few rare compound nouns are also formed out of nouns that already have irregular plurals. What makes the plural forms of these compound nouns somewhat odd is that they don't obey even their own irregular rules. Some examples:

  • clubfoots (even though "foot" should pluralize into "feet")
  • pussyfoots
  • hotfoots
  • sabertooths (even though "tooth" should pluralize into "teeth")
  • snaggle-tooths
  • still-lifes (even though "life" should pluralize into "lives")
  • lowlifes
  • nightlifes

Other plural compound nouns move the plural –s internally, to one of the words not on the end. Virtually all of them occur with Post-Positive Adjectives (adjectives that follow the noun, rather than precede it). Many of these are highly specialized and include diplomatic and military titles: "Knights-errant," for instance, or "Quartermasters General. These are a matter of protocol more than anything. The more common variety of plural compounds that cause writers difficulty are listed here below:

  • agents provocateurs
  • attorneys-at-law
  • bills-of-goods
  • brothers-in-law
  • chiefs-of-staff
  • courts-martial
  • culs-de-sac
  • daughters-in-law
  • directors general
  • employees-in-training
  • fathers-in-law
  • fees simple absolute
  • goings-on
  • governors general
  • hangers-on
  • in-laws
  • jacks-in-the-box
  • johnnies-come-lately
  • lookers-on
  • Macbooks Pro
  • menfolk
  • menservant (or manservants)
  • mothers-in-law
  • noms de plume
  • passers-by
  • runners up
  • sergeants major
  • sisters-in-law
  • sons-in-law
  • sons-of-a-bitches
  • surgeons general
  • womenfolk
  • works-in-progress

REGULAR PLURALS OF SINGULAR WORDS AND NAMES ENDING IN SINGLE "S"

Singular nouns ending with double-s are fairly common in the English language: pass; countess; boss; less; etc. However, students are suddenly undone by words in the English language that end in single "s," especially when it comes time to pluralizing them —and for good reason, for there are enough illogical irregularities in the spelling rules of such words to make even jaded English professors say, "Well, huh." Take, for instance, the word "bus": no satisfying reason exists to explain why "buses" should be one of its two acceptable plural spellings (the other, of course, being the very rationale and rule- obedient "busses"—double "s"). If all the practical rules of pronunciation were to apply, "buses" would have the same pronunciation as "abuses," rather than rhyme with "fusses." Mind you, this same quirk of spelling shows up in other parts of speech, too. For example, the past tense of the verb "travel" can be spelled either "traveled" or "travelled"; the latter dutifully obeys the rules of spelling transformation, while the former is just a cheap way for travel agencies to save some money advertising in the Classifieds. Still, pluralizing words already ending in "s" so flummoxes students these days that it may seem as if rote memorization is their only recourse.

Truthfully, in the vast majority of cases, singular nouns ending in single "s" are also irregular nouns of foreign origin: abacus; hubris; anaphylaxis; incubus; etc. (See "Irregular Plurals" above.) However, here are some less exotic nouns in their singular form that end in single "s" and may cause you confusion when you have to pluralize them:

COMMON NOUNS WITH SINGLE "S" ENDINGS
  • alias —es (aliases)
  • basis —es (bases: pronounced bay-seez)
  • bias —es (biases)
  • bus —es (buses); -ses (busses)
  • cutlas —ses (cutlasses)
  • dais —es (daises; be careful not to write "daisies"!)
  • ibis —es (ibises)
  • gas —es (gases); -ses (gasses)
  • pus —es (puses)
  • tennis —es (tennises)

PROPER NOUNS WITH "S" ENDINGS
The following are examples of proper nouns that may look plural because they end in -s, but which are not. If pluralized, they follow the same rules as common nouns.

Places Names

  • Mars
  • Venus
  • Hades
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Caracas
  • Alice Springs
  • Memphis

First Names and Nicknames

  • Agnes
  • Bojangles
  • Charles
  • Dolores
  • Elvis
  • Gus
  • James
  • Jonas
  • Lois
  • Lucas
  • Marcus
  • Moses
  • Phyllis
  • Silas
  • Snookums
  • Sparkles-Fantastic
  • Travis

Family Names

  • James (e.g., Henry James)
  • Johns (e.g. Johns Hopkins University)
  • Jones (e.g., Grace Jones)
  • Stevens (e.g., Wallace Stevens)
  • Stephens (e.g., Stephens County, Texas)
  • Williams (e.g., Vanessa Williams)

POSSESSIVES

ORDINARY POSSESSIVES

The rules of changing ordinary nouns from singular into plural don't trouble students much until they have to consider their possessive forms as well. The possessive form in English grammar is the genitive case (see "Pronouns"), which is indicated in one of two ways:

1. Preposition "Of": placed before the object noun or pronoun to which belonging is attributed

Fifty Shades Of Grey
the Fifth (day) of July
the bow of the ship
the workload of Mark and other students

2. Possessive Apostrophes: used instead of the preposition "of" (never in addition to it)

Grey's Anatomy
July's long, summer days
the ship's cargo
Mark and other students' workloads
SINGULAR POSSESSIVE versus PLURAL POSSESSIVE

If you choose to use the preposition "of" to indicate possession, nothing additional need be done if the noun is irregular or plural; the same rules of plural endings apply. However, if you use an apostrophe, some minor distinction must be made to indicate where the noun* is singular possessive or plural possessive.

The singular possessive form of a noun always is apostrophe + "s."

the team's record of winning
a man's shaving kit 
a mother's intuition

The plural possessive form of a noun in most cases is "s" + apostrophe.

The two teams' uniforms were very similar
The three-year-olds' incessant screaming have us a headache
The other mothers' first response was to comfort their children.

*Note: When apostrophes are used to denote possession, the noun transforms into a modifier, describing what or who is possessed or owned. As such, it answers the same questions other modifiers answer, which? and whose? For example: Bob's car" (Which car? Bob's); winter's approach (Which approach? Winter's). On a sentence diagram, possessive nouns would occupy the same position as Possessive Adjectives, which may help you to remember this point. In fact, just as possessive adjectives are really modifiers derived from pronouns, possessive nouns are modifiers that once were real nouns.

POSSESSIVES AND IRREGULAR PLURALS

The irregular plural possessive form of some nouns is "apostrophe + "s." These should be memorized.

men's (not mens')
children's (not childrens')
women's (not womens')
feet's (not feets')
sheep's (not sheeps')
fish's (not fishes') [Note: poetical or scriptural use of the word "fish" sometimes pluralize it as "fishes", as in "loaves and fishes."]

Some clumsy exceptions formed from well-meaning attempts to make words more easily pronounced are

series' (not series's)
means' (not means's)

"Persons" versus "People"

While most writers write "people" to pluralize "person," "person" is not an irregular noun requiring "people" as its plural form. Rather, it's a matter of convention to do so. The evidence for this lies in the fact that both words, "person" and "people," have their own regular singular and plural forms.

A person came into the police station today to report that persons unknown broke into her house and stole all of her Taylor Swift posters.
Because they were taught from biased history books, people overlook the truth that the ancient Egyptians were one of the peoples of Africa.
POSSESSIVE NOUNS ENDING IN "S"

Nowhere does the issue of possessive case become more flummoxing than when nouns ending in "s" are involved, because it seems redundant and clumsy. Regardless, this is only a prejudice of students who, after a lifetime of rules and their exceptions having been drilled into them, now nervously believe something special should be done to accommodate the weirdness of so many esses piled up. Confused advice on the internet and elsewhere does little to disabuse them of their prejudice, too. However, the matter is really as simple as the rules of pluralizing nouns that end in "s": they're exactly the same as any other noun, and their possessive forms follow the same rules. Here are some examples.

Common Nouns ending in "-S"

gas:

The gas's strong odor alerted them as to the source of the leak.

alias:

The alias's similarity to his legal name made it easy for the FBI to find him.

mass; masses:

The gelatinous mass's shape changed from one minute to the next.
When the sirens sounded, the masses' panic could be heard throughout the stadium.

synopsis:

She carefully checked the story synopsis's spelling before turning in the assignment.

compass; compasses:

The Golden Compass's plot was changed slightly for the movie version.
Our compasses' accuracy came into doubt when they started pointing in different directions.
Proper Nouns (Names and Nicknames) ending in "-S"

Charles:

After the devastation of the hurricane, we all helped to rebuild Charles's house.

Williams:

I discovered a rare disco version of John Williams's score for Close Encounters Of the Third Kind.

Texas:

Texas's economy is one of the largest and most rapidly growing in the U.S.

Jiggles:

She brushed Jiggles's coat once a day, but lavished him with treats all day long.

Other Proper Nouns ending in palatal digraphs (-ch; -th; -tch; -zh; -sh; etc.)

Bush; Bushes:

George W. Bush's father, former President George Bush, Sr., never returned to the White House to visit his son while he was in office.
The Bushes' tenure in the Whitehouse lasted eight years.

Radowitz; Radowitzes

Historically, Joseph Von Radowitz's greatest accomplishment was his proposal to unify Germany under Prussian leadership.
Maximillian, King of Bavaria, had the greatest respect for the Radowitzes' political advice.

TITLES: PLURALS AND POSSESSIVE FORMS

The title of published work is a singular noun phrase: the entire title is one single thing, and when it is the subject of a clause, the verb form should be singular as well. That's why, when a plural noun is used in the title, we still make the verb of our sentence agree with a singular subject:

All the Pretty Horses is Cormac McCarthy's 1992 award-winning novel ["...Horses is," not "...Horses are"]

The possessive form of titles is something to treat on a case-by-case basis. If the title of a published work does not end in "-s," you are permitted to use an apostrophe + "s" just as you would with any other singular noun. This technique is straightforward enough when the title is in italics:

Lolita's controversial subject matter
War and Peace's impact on Western literature

However, when the title is in quotation marks, then this technique becomes more problematic:

We discussed Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"'s importance as an early work of feminist American literature.
George Orwell intentionally made "A Hanging"'s narrator seem sympathetic but cowardly.

In these examples, closed double-quotation marks alongside a possessive apostrophe are technically correct, but typographically very awkward. Similarly, when an italicized title ends in -s or is a regular plural, it's awkward to use an apostrophe + "s," even though you still treat the entire title as a singular noun. In such cases, you'll want to follow your instincts about what sounds least awkward. Most of the time, using the preposition "of," and not a possessive apostrophe at all, is the best answer.

NOT...

Charles Darwin's On the Origin Of the Species' theory of natural selection became the basis for modern evolutionary biology.
NOR...
Charles Darwin's On the Origin Of the Species's theory of natural selection became the basis for modern evolutionary biology.

BUT, RATHER...

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection in On the Origin Of the Species became the basis for modern evolutionary biology.
We discussed the importance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" as an early work of feminist American literature.
George Orwell intentionally made the narrator of "A Hanging" seem sympathetic but cowardly.
Last Updated: 06/17/2015
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