The Plural of “Calf” is “Calves,” or is it?
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.
Other nouns that end in f form their plurals simply by adding s. For example:
belief beliefs (the verb is believe)
grief griefs (the verb is grieve)
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?
Browse all articles on the Spelling category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!