One Scissor?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader commenting on my post about pair poses this question about the nouns scissors and pants:

Isn’t each blade one scissor, and each leg part one pant?

Short answer: No.

Just because a noun ends in s does not mean there’s a matching “singular” without an s. For example, we never speak of: one athletic, one binocular, one new, one billiard, or one diabete.

Scissors has been in the language since Chaucer’s time with the meaning “a cutting instrument consisting of a pair of handled blades, so pivoted that the instrument can be opened to a shape resembling that of the letter X, and the handles then brought together again so as to cause the edges of the blades to close on the object to be cut.

The noun scissors takes a plural verb: “These scissors need to be sharpened.” Qualified by a numeral or an indefinite article, the construction “a pair of scissors” is used. The OED does show “a scissors,” but notes that it is rare. Merriam-Webster acknowledges “a scissors” with a quotation from Croswell Bowen: “took a scissors, cut the bedspread, a table scarf, and a plant.”

In my part of the U.S., one might hear any of the following:

Hand me the scissors, please.

Do you have a scissors I can use?

They gave her scissors for her birthday.

One of the blades would be called not “a scissor,” but “a scissors blade.”

For a discussion of pant vs pants, check out One Pant, Two Pants.

Some nouns that end in s are singular in meaning and take singular verbs:

Measles is still a dangerous disease.
Some say that athletics is overemphasized in American education.
Politics is the art of looking for trouble.
Mathematics is a basic school subject.
This news is not fit to print.
Billards is my favorite pastime.
Acoustics is his specialty.
Shingles is caused by the same virus as chicken pox.

Some nouns that end in s are singular in meaning and take plural verbs:

The kitten’s antics are amusing.
His earnings have remained static for five years.
These binoculars are expensive.

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21 Responses to “One Scissor?”

  • opsimath

    Another interesting post, but I think there may be one or two exceptions, modern and ancient, to the rule you mentioned.

    I am quite sure that, in a History class some fifty years ago, we read s piece by Queen Victoria in which she said something like, ‘The news from India are not good’.

    When I worked for the GPO Telephone Service, we often had to fit ‘acoustic booths’ to telephones in noisy offices; and most mammals, if I understand the term, are blessed with binocular vision.

    It seems your ‘rule’, as with so many such in our fascinating and equally infuriating language, are very much what we make of them.

    Thank you again for a most interesting blog.

    Best wishes,

    kingsknight3

  • Paul Chevalier

    Is it two pair of glasses or two pairs of glasses?

    I am not a writer but I do find you daily writing tips very interesting.

    Thank you

    Paul

  • Valerie Lastinger

    I’d like to contribute on the plural of scissors. In French, the word exists in the singular, and refers to a chisel. Un sciseau (one chisel), deux sciseaux (2 chisels), une paire de sciseaux (when the blades are connected). Although modern English speakers may no longer associate scissor blades with chisels, the connection is there.

    I enjoy reading your website every day! Keeps me on my toes as an speaker of English as a foreign language.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Opsimath: The article discusses nouns ending in -s. Your examples for acoustic and binocular uses the terms as adjectives. Personally, I don’t accept Queen Victoria as a grammar authority.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Scissors derives from French cisoires (plural), “shears.” ‘Shears’ is plural of ‘shear,’ a tool for cutting. In the singular, ‘shear’ sounds too much like the verb, ‘to shear,’ so people more commonly use ‘knife’ or ‘blade’ instead of ‘shear.’

    ‘Shears’ is a synonym for scissors, except that ‘shears’ usually refers to heavy duty scissors such as sheet metal shears, pruning shears, or sheep shears.

    Technically, one half of a pair of scissors would be a ‘shear;’ but most people would just call it ‘broken scissors.’

  • Preciseedit

    I wonder whether there is a connection between “scissors” and “incisor.”

    When teaching on the Navajo reservation, I often heard students say something along the lines of “I need a scissor.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, indeed, Mr. Wheeler. This article was about nouns, and all of the following are adjectives: acoustic, binocular, dynamic, economic, electric, electronic, forensic, graphic, optic, robotic, sonic. The noun forms of these have an “s” added. Also, many of the adjectives have another adjectival form with an “al” suffixed.

    When it comes to “electric” vs. “electrical”, their meanings are exactly the same, and the words are mostly interchageable. Any preference for one over the other in a given phrase is strictly idiomatic. (In other words, someone made a choice a long time ago, and we have stuck with it.) For example: electric light bulb, electric motor, electric charge, but electrical engineer, electrical technology, electrical unit. The combining form is usually “electro” and in “electrodynamics”, “electrolysis”, and “electromagnetic”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In physics, engineering, and the other science, there is a whole family of singular nouns that end in “s”, and often dropping the “s” makes the word into an adjective. Here is a group that ends in “s”:
    acoustics, aerodynamics, dynamics (and many words with a prefix added), electromagnetics, forensics, graphics, hydraulics, mechanics, optics, physics (and many words with a prefix added), pneumatics, robotics, statics (a subject in mechanical and civil engineering), sonics. Adding medicine as a biological science, we have pediatrics and othopedics, and dentistry has several subfields that end in “dontics” as in “othodontics”.

    I have seen the phrase “The physics are…” and I have usually considered this one to be quite questionable. One the other hand, physics could be considered to be a set of many subfields (mechanics, electromagnetics, electronics, dynamics, optics, etc.), in which case it MIGHT be proper to treat physics as a plural subject.

    Oh, I nearly forgot to include an important word: economics.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Preceiseedit: The word “incisor” is a normal noun with a singular (incisor) and a plural that ends in “s” (incisors).
    1. The boy got hit in the mouth by a baseball, and he had his upper right incisor knocked out.
    2. The woman had all of her incisors knocked out in the plane crash, but the oral surgeon was able to reimplant all but one of them.
    3. Dentist: “You have a cavity in one of your incisors.”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Maeve, Well wherever I have lived in the U.S. – north, south, east, or west, people have always said these:

    “Do you have a pair of scissors that I can use?”
    “They gave her a pair of scissors for her birthday.”

    BUT “Don’t go running with scissors!”
    Dale

  • thebluebird11

    @Rich Wheeler: LOL @broken scissors!
    @Maeve: I think there was a post on here not too far back that discussed “kudos,” which I think might fall under this topic of discussion.
    @DAW: I guess in the event that someone is running with scissors, time is of the essence and one would not want to lose even a millisecond having to fit in the phrase “a pair of.” Or several pairs of, as the case may be. Thinking of Edward Scissorhands 🙂

  • Roberta B.

    @Rich Wheeler So, let me ask…..is a ploughshare (plowshare), as in turning “swords to ploughshares,” related to the term “shear” as in the single blade of a pair of scissors you referenced above? A plow is a single blade used to cut the soil. So, this use of term “share” (shear) might seem to make more sense than as used in the term “sharecropper” where “share” is used to mean a portion of a collective benefit or output.

  • venqax

    Actually, the Navajo’s attempt isn’t that far from acceptable. “A scissor” was used way back, referring to what we now call a pair of them, and “a scissors” with the S wasn’t unknown. But the word goes way back to Old French and Medieval Latin, at least, and pretty much always seems to have been treated as plural, or a pair, for whatever reason, even though the idea that each blade was “a scissor” doesn’t seem to have been present much (unlike, e.g., pants). Some here have made a very good point though, that every word that happens to end in an S is not a plural with a matching singular. My pet peeve along those lines is “statistic”. Statistics, like other disciplines—economics, mathematics, etc.—is fine. But when and why one piece of statistical (let alone any kind of) information ( a datum!) became “a statistic” is a dark and malevolent mystery. Is one math problem “a mathematic”? That would be good to know since, “a pain in the ass” isn’t always usable.

    Preciseedit: Yes, both incisor and scissors come from the Latin caedere which means “to cut”, and so makes great sense.

  • venqax

    When it comes to “electric” vs. “electrical”, their meanings are exactly the same, and the words are mostly interchageable.

    Mmmm, not so fast. I’d say an electrical engineer is one who works with electricity, while an electric engineer would be one that actually runs on electricity.In many cases, they would be synonymous (e.g. problematic/problematical) but not all. Maybe I’d agree with “mostly”. Conotatively it seems like electrical applies more to things having to do with electricity generally, while electric implies things that function on electricity. Hence, an electric drill, an electrical problem. An electrical engineer, an electric eel.

  • venqax

    @Roberta B: So, let me ask…..is a ploughshare (plowshare), as in turning “swords to ploughshares,” related to the term “shear”.

    If you don’t mind my response: Yes. The share in plowshare comes from the same Germanic root as shear, probably skar, skara meaning to cut. More interesting, perhaps, is the plow. It comes from the Old English word (plog, ploh) for a piece of land of the size of which could be plowed (skared?) in one day. So you kind of “shared” a plow of land. Later the verb “to plow” evolved from the noun and noun’s definition moved from the ground it was done to to the piece of equipment it was done with. Some sources indicate that somewhat later the plowshare was the blade, specifically, while plow referred to the whole piece of equipment. I don’t know if that is accurate, but it makes sense for the sword analogy.

  • Melissa Nourigat

    The topic of “a scissor” has always cut me the wrong way when I hear it used in this reference.

    Just because people misuse the phrase or word does not make it a proper use. Yes, the use has been found in old English, but that doesn’t mean it was correctly used. There is a ton of bad grammar that shows up in literature, it doesn’t mean it is good English. English has transformed into a better product through literacy, education and meaningful examination of root usage.

    Describing a pair of scissors, the noun, as a plural is the best description, since the two arms share a jointed conjunction that work in unison to operate the function. Therefore, it is a pair of “scissors” doing the work.

  • Melissa Nourigat

    In my opinion, if more than one noun shares a function or is grouped by category, then it is plural. Engineers, for example, are part of a group of people who perform similar like tasks, study or ie work. Where as, an engine is a single function device. This also applies to the sciences, where they are lumping many disciplines into one category. Physics is a multidisciplinary study of many individual sciences within a category, therefore, requires the plural function in today’s English.

  • venqax

    @Melissa Nourigat:

    Describing a pair of scissors, the noun, as a plural is the best description… it is a pair of “scissors” doing the work.

    You’re skipping over the whole problem. Even if scissors is treated as a plural, there is no singular form “scissor”. So a “pair” of scissors is a pair of what, exactly? Nothing. One of the blades is not “a scissor” the way, e.g., “a shoe” is half a pair of them. In any case, you have to say “a pair of scissors IS what I used”, not, “…ARE what I used because “a pair” is singular. ONE pair.

    Physics is a multidisciplinary study of many individual sciences within a category, therefore, requires the plural function in today’s English.

    What? So you’re recommending saying, “Physics are my favorite topic”? Physics is A discipline. Or, if you prefer, A group of disciplines. ONE discipline, ONE group, regardless of how many components it has. You don’t say, “My office building ARE around the corner” because office buildings have lots of different offices. Am I misunderstanding what you’re trying to say?

  • Roberta B.

    @venqax – Thanks for your response which sheds light on another word origin. The word plow…..”comes from the Old English word (plog, ploh) for a piece of land of the size of which could be plowed (skared?) in one day.” So, these original words probably are the root for the term “plot” of land – something that can be plowed in one day – as opposed to something more extensive, like a ranch or an estate.

  • Roger

    I have just discovered this site and have been reading this particular thread with some bemusement. Does anyone really speak of “a pair of scissors” in ordinary conversations or, even, in writing? I would certainly say “the scissors” as in “please pass me the scissors” or “the scissors ARE in the drawer”. And I am sure that, if asked, (by a non-English speaker perhaps), “What IS that?”, I would say, “They ARE scissors” and I am pretty sure, if I used the pair word, I would say, “They ARE a pair of scissors”. I should, probably, declare that I have been a native speaker of British English for more than seventy years.

  • champion

    There is no word “scissor” in singular or plural there is only word “scissors ” because in scissors there are two blades so instead of saying two blades it has been saying “scissors “

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