The Plural of “Calf” is “Calves,” or is it?

By Maeve Maddox

An NPR reporter talking about Colorado ranchers mentioned the income they get when they sell the offspring of their cattle. What she said was:

when they sell their [kăfs].

She pronounced the plural of calf, which is spelled calves, as [kăfs].

I’ve heard speakers on radio and television pronounce the plural of knife as [nīfs], elf as [ĕlfs], and life as [līfs], but never gave the matter much thought because they were not speaking in a formal context. Perhaps these pronunciations represent a trend.

English has a small group of nouns ending in f that form their plurals by changing the f to v and adding es. Calf belongs to this group. At least, it used to.

calf calves
elf elves
half halves
knife knives
leaf leaves
life lives
loaf loaves
self selves
sheaf sheaves
shelf shelves
thief thieves
wharf wharves
wife wives

Other nouns that end in f form their plurals simply by adding s. For example:

belief beliefs (the verb is believe)
chief chiefs
cliff cliffs
fife fifes
grief griefs (the verb is grieve)
gulf gulfs
hoof hoofs (some speakers say hooves and spell it hooves)
proof proofs (the verb is prove)
roof roofs (some speakers say rooves, but still spell it roofs)
safe safes (the verb is save)
strife strifes (the verb is strive)

Some fantasy fans may argue the merits of dwarfs versus dwarves, but as long ago as 1937, Walt Disney gave us Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

My old high school English handbook gives hoofs as the plural of hoof, but I remember this line from a poem students were required to memorize:

Tlot tlot, tlot tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hooves, ringing clear. –“The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes

Both sounds represented by the letters f and v are formed by placing lips and teeth in the same postion. The only difference between the sounds is that v is voiced and f is not. The feminine of fox is vixen. Before the 1500s, it was fyxan
.
The small group of words that follow the plural forming rule of change the f to v and add es seems to be in the process of dwindling further. Maybe English teachers have stopped teaching the rule.

Will speakers who say [kăfs] for the plural of calf still write the word as calves? Or will they write calfs?

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12 Responses to “The Plural of “Calf” is “Calves,” or is it?”

  • Brad K.

    Calves works fine for me. This calf, those calves, they each look healthy.

    Calfs and dwarfs are like “ain’t” – in popular use, but not proper. Sue me.

  • Natalie

    “roof roofs (some speakers say rooves, but still spell it roofs)
    safe safes (the verb is save)
    strife strifes (the verb is strive)”

    The differentiation between the verbs and nouns is worth noting.

  • LuAnn

    Perhaps some of the confusion stems from using some of the words as verbs…..

    …when the tree leafs out….
    …when he roofs the addition…..

    I still believe that we gave up quality education when we stopped teaching phonics and word origins for rote memorization….. Our language skills have spiraled downhill ever since.

  • Alex

    As a non-native speaker, I would write calves and not calfs, but I’m not aware of the different pronunciation. I think I wouldn’t have ‘detected’ the mistake, mainly because in German, V is really pronounced as F/PH. The word “von” is really pronounced as “fon”, so I’d pronounce calves and all the other -ves plurals probably as -fs 😛

    And of course, I’m aware that the correct form should be dwarfs, but since Tolkien introduced Dwarves as the plural for the race in contrast to just the condition of being of short height, I do like how Dwarves looks… but I probably pronounce it ‘dwarfs’ anyway.

  • LGW

    I doubt I’ll ever understand where “beeves” comes from – it’s sometimes used at the plural of beef, or perhaps of “cow destined to become beef”. Perhaps it’s just a technical term, with no explanation beyond that.

    Tolkien was asked once about “dwarves vs dwarfs” and made some comment that perhaps the proper plural was “dwarren”. Of course, he may have been joking.

  • Sheila

    LuAnn:
    “I still believe that we gave up quality education when we stopped teaching phonics and word origins for rote memorization…”

    Could I add diagramming sentences to that?

  • Tony Hearn

    Yet again we have the dialect versus standard issue. Standard English is by and large a construct, an artificial dialect, in fact. So long as the media and the education system were prepared to buy into it it flourished. This is now waning and the spoken vernaculars are reaffirming themselves. The printed language is more conservative and will maintain the standard longer, that is respond to change more slowly. In practice, those of us brought up against a fairly literary and educated background, wit parents who spoke a form of the standard language are going to feel more at home with ‘ knives, wives, leaves,’ etc. For many the spoken form is, and doubtless long has been, ‘knifes, wifes, leafs’
    On ‘calves’ by the way, there is a marked difference of vowel length between the British (for the most part) and American speakers. In Britain we use a long vowel in calf, half etc., so we would say ‘cahves or caafs’, but not ‘kaffs’.

  • Sarah

    Alex, when you spell it calves and not calfs(which is supposed to be spelled calf’s I think) it makes me think of calves like the calves on a persons leg. Is that right?

  • Maeve

    Sarah,
    The spelling “calf’s” is a possessive.
    Ex. the calf’s mother is a cow.

    The plural, if you aren’t going to spell it “calves,” would be written “calfs”.

  • Dean

    The plural of ‘dwarf’ in Middle English was ‘dwarven’, just as the plural of ‘elf’ was ‘elven’ (these were part of the former ‘weak’ declension of Anglo-Saxon, of which ox, oxen still survives).

    In the northern dialects ‘dwarves’ and ‘elves’ was proper, and eventually the sothern forms passed out of usage. Since the vowels were sounded on either side of the ‘f’ it had to change from being voiceless to being voiced, thus the letter was written ‘v’.

    In Anglo-Saxon, the letter ‘f’ was used for both sounds. Today, since the e’s have gone silent in the -es endings, there is no actual need to voice the ‘f’ as ‘v’ so the trend will continue to change from ‘calves’ to [kæfs] or [kăfs].

    Another neat Middle English relic is the adjective ‘elfin’ which comes from the former possessive (genative) plural of ‘elf’ which was ‘elvene’ meaning “of the elves.”

  • neha

    You forgot
    Wolf-Wolves

  • Dale A. Wood

    Seawolf and seawolves. Airwolf and airwolves. Werewolf and werewolves.
    The name “Adolf” comes from an Old German word that meant “a wolf”. For example the American Adolf Coors.
    D.A.W.

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