Multiple Plurals, Multiple Meanings

By Maeve Maddox

One of the more interesting aspects of the changes that take place in English from generation to generation is the fact that as spellings change to conform to modern usage, some of the old forms stick around with different connotations or meanings.

Two words for angel that came into English from Hebrew have plural forms ending in -im: cherub/cherubim and seraph/seraphim.

In angel lore, a seraph is a “fiery six-winged angel” who guards God’s throne. A cherub ranks just below a seraph and has two large wings, a human head, and animal body. A cherub is the guardian of a sacred place.

Seraph has not entered into general use, but in modern English cherub refers to the image of a pretty Cupid-like child with wings, or to the little faces with wings one sees as architectural decorations. A child with a beautiful, innocent face can be called a cherub. For these modern uses the plural of cherub is cherubs.

The earlier plural of brother was brethren, a form still seen in the King James version of the Bible and still to be found in sermons and some religious writing. It suggests spiritual kinship.

The plural fishes for fish has a kind of Biblical ring to it, as in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Pence as the plural of penny is still used in Britain while Americans say pennies.

The word dice is the plural of die: a cube with spots used in gaming. Die can also refer to an instrument used in manufacturing. The plural of that kind of die is dies.

Some other words with more than one plural form:
formula formulas formulae: The Latin plural formulae is often preferred by scientific writers.

index indexes indices: The plural indices has a specialized mathematical meaning (a number or symbol or expression written to the left or right of and above or below or otherwise associated with another number or symbol or expression to indicate use or position in an arrangement or expansion or to indicate a mathematical operation to be performed).

staff staffs staves: The plural staffs is the modern choice, whether you’re talking about a group of workers or a stick used as a walking aid. If you’re writing an historical novel, however, Robin Hood and Little John would fight with staves. The word stave occurs as a singular musical term. It is also the word for one of the strips of wood used to make a barrel. The plural of stave is staves.

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9 Responses to “Multiple Plurals, Multiple Meanings”

  • Rachel

    This post reminded me of English words which have lost their singular forms: for example, datum/data or bacterium/bacteria. I’d imagine the OED still insists on “one piece of datum” as being correct, though other dictionaries seem to be a little more lax.

  • Maeve

    Thanks for mentioning datum/data. I’d intended to include it with formula and forumulae. I think we’ve about seen the last of datum in English.

  • Ray Ward

    “Children” as plural of “child” has the same suffix as “brethren” — a surviving example of the same plural construction.

  • Brad K.

    I also encounter index and indices in a near-mathematical context – in database structures.

    You mention staffs as workers – what about staffers? I think of ‘staff’ as ‘the group of support people enabling the the technical or professional central figures of an office’, office being used in either the suite of rooms sense or the sense of the duties one assumes.

    Then I would use ‘staffs’ in “combine the staffs of the offices of transportation and education” to be plural support groups. Staffers would refer to the workers without regard to the office they support. “Some staffers would be transferred to the office of parks and recreation.” Well, that last one came off a bit lame, but still.

  • Maeve

    I guess I wasn’t sufficiently clear about “staffs.” I was thinking of “staff” in the sense of a team of workers and “staffs” as a group plural. The individual members of a staff I would call “staff members.”

  • –Deb

    Fabulous list. I never realized that “pence” was the plural of “pennies.” Learn something new every day (grin).

  • Maeve

    Pence is the plural of penny. Pennies is also the plural of penny.

  • Amy

    I don’t know if this is correct or not, but I prefer to use “antennae” for the plural of insect appendages, and “antennas” for the plural of wireless communication devices.

  • Michael

    Hi, this is a very interesting list, on a very interesting site.

    As far as I know, fish is the plural of fish when talking about one breed, but fishes when talking about many breeds together.

    Concerning pennies and pence, pennies suggests to me talking about the individuals pennies as a group rather than one group of many pennies, this would be pence. I have 50 pence, these are 50 pennies.

    I’m from Britain so maybe it is different in the US, but I can’t recall ever hearing the word staffs with reference to workforce, just staff (s) and staff (pl).

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