Sunday, April 29, 2012

Puzzling Plurals and the *Potatoe Incident

Thanks for participating in the Puzzling Plurals survey. In this post, after focusing on potato and other singular nouns that end with the open /o/ sound, I discuss the survey questions. To finish, I provide links to references, articles, and games.

It is evident from the survey results that "we" are perplexed. The English language is  puzzling, and plurals trouble all of us at times. As we know, they can certainly stress former US Vice Presidents--at least, that's the argument I make below.

"Now add one little bit on the end."

Some tricky singular-plural pairs are remnants of Old English, and flow from the Germanic layer of the language. Some are artifacts of Greek and Latin influence. Still others flow from Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, etc.

For example, take potato, a word that apparently traveled from native Haitian, was given a  Spanish spelling, and was adopted into English, from Sp. patata, from Carib (Haiti) batata "sweet potato." (etymology here). Basic English 101 says to make a plural, we add either the inflectional suffix -s or -es to the singular noun, right? But we typically add -es to words that end with hissing sibilant sounds like /s/, /z/, /sh/, /zh/ and /ch/ -- including wish-wishes, fox-foxes, and bus-buses. Now, potato does not end with a hissing sound, so why would the plural of potato be potato + es? We do not add an -es to pinto or pueblo, yet like potato, they came into English via Spanish. And if the plural is potatoes (and it is), then we should be able to figure out how to spell the singular simply by removing the final -s. Thus, we might deduce that the singular of potatoes is *potatoe. After all, someone (a teacher, or so the story goes) spelled it that way on the cue card for the ill-famed spelling bee. (See the *potatoe incident on YouTube.)

One can kinda-sorta see why Quayle's handler approved the cue card, and why the VP himself went along with it, telling the 12-year-old--who knew the correct spelling--to "add one little bit to the end" of his perfectly spelled potato. After all, there are just too many strange spellings to remember, and we never add -es to a noun that ends in a vowel.

Visual Thesaurus map for genie
But we do! Potato+es, echo+es, torpedo+es, tomato+es, and hero+es testify to it, while piano+s, inferno+s, video+s, rodeo+s and bistro+s refute it. Meanwhile, playing it safe, several sit the fence: ghettos or ghettoes, cargoes or cargos, flamingos or flamingoes, halos or haloes, tornadoes or tornados, etc. English is pickled with puzzles, and just when we find a pattern, the language genie attacks--sometimes we tangle with two genies at once--or genii?

I spell potato, you spell *potatoe? Pity the former Vice President, but pity even more the millions of English learners around the world. In fact, be gentle with all. From the survey results, even well-educated adults who use English with confidence all day fall prey to the unpredictable plural.

Below, I briefly discuss the survey questions. I note the percentage of 271 respondents who voted in favor of each phrase, deciding it was correct. Kudos (but not *kudoes) for resisting the dictionary while responding. Refer to the prior post to see the closed survey with graphed results and related comments.
  • (82%) lots of data is correct. The singular is datum. 
  • (55%) seven thesauri is correct. Thesauruses is listed in some dictionaries, but it only appears once every 1,356,110 pages, on average, according to The singular is thesaurus. 
  • (63%) a single bacterium is correct (like datum). The plural is bacteria. 
  • (12%) six skinny mooses is not correct. The plural of moose is moose.
  • (38%) one essential criteria is not correct. The singular is criterion; the plural is criteria.
  • (26%) five octopuses is correct. Read about octopuses, not *octopi, below.
  • (85%) four strong oxen is correct (like children, brethren, and extinct shoon, like shoe + -en; see shoe etymology). The singular is ox. 
  • (63%) two loaded dice is correct. The singular is die (but dice is becoming more accepted as a singular form). Note the plural mice and lice are not expressed in singular as *mie and *lie.
  • (89%) four flying fish is correct, but fishes would also be correct. 
  • (71%) a strange phenomenon is correct (like criterion). The plural is phenomena. 
  • (77%) some differing hypotheses is correct, ending with es. The singular is hypothesis (like crisis, analysis, thesis, parenthesis). 
  • (13%) hundreds of hopping head lie is not correct. The plural is lice and the singular louse (like mouse, but not house and *hice)
English words reflect the spelling patterns of the parent language, but not with consistency. This is when we teach dictionary skills, an important aspect of vocabulary instruction. However, it is worthwhile to memorize the spellings of words we use frequently. Many of these words actually do conform to a plural-forming pattern. In Words and Rules, Stephen Pinker (1999, p. 26) theorized:
"The mind analyzes every stretch of language as some mixture of memorized chunks and rule-governed assemblies."
Rule-governed assemblies include spelling patterns. What are the spelling patterns for tricky plurals? Several experts have attempted to explain them, or list them. So, for your browsing pleasure, explore the following links -- there's even a game.

The Old English Plural by The Oxford Times

Tricky Plurals in English: Bacterias, Bacteriae, Bacteriums? Plurals of Loanwords in English, by Oxford Dictionaries-Oxford University Press (not sure if this will open without a membership). Here is an excerpt, explaining why *octopi is not the plural of octopus:
Tangled up in the coils of the language octopus
 X Sea lions are carnivores and eat fish, squid, octopi, crabs, clams, and lobsters. 
As the above example (taken from a US scientific publication) shows, a little knowledge of Latin and Greek can be a dangerous thing and sometimes leads people into error. The writer clearly knows that some Latin plurals are formed by changing the ‘–us’ ending of a singular noun into ‘-i’ for the plural, as in alumnus -> alumni. However, octopus is ultimately borrowed from a Greek word and not a Latin one, so it’s incorrect to form the plural according to the Latin rules. If you wanted to be ultra-correct and conform to ancient Greek, you’d talk about octopodes, but this is very rare: the Anglicized plural, octopuses, is absolutely fine. 
A Reference to Strange Plurals in English, at pipTALK Forums

Irregular Plurals and Nouns, at the University of Victoria Study Zone

One Fish-Two Fish, a game-like quiz at Sporcle (Try it!)

Minimum, Minima, and Other Irregular Plurals  by Bill Wilson, engineering

Strange Plurals at English

Strange Plurals, an open list at Worknik

What is the Plural of Mouse? Quick and Dirty Tips by Grammar Girl


Pinker, S. (1999). Words and rules. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.



  1. Patrick Donaldson5/01/2012

    Easier to stick with spud.

    1. So true! When in doubt, substitute a synonym. A good strategy!

  2. Anonymous5/03/2012

    Fascinating! (but is kudos a singular or a plural?)

  3. Good question! I do not know the answer. If a word ends with an -s, we might assume it is plural, but everything depends on the language of origin.

    I have just now looked it up. Here is what it says at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

    kudos (n.) "fame, renown," 1799, probably originally in university slang, from Gk. kydos "glory, fame," especially in battle, lit. "that which is heard of"... A singular noun in Greek, but the final -s often is mistaken as a plural suffix in English, leading to the barbarous back-formation kudo (attested by 1936).

    1. Anonymous5/26/2012

      When a lexical word in English ends with a singular -s and is not plural, we can safely assume that it is a loanword.

  4. Hello all,

    I would like to offer an alternative way of looking at the confusion people often have with not knowing what plural to use.

    Instead of accepting that confusion as evidence of a flawed system, we can try and identify the most elegant description that accounts for the spellings we see. In order to be as brief as possible (not very!) I will focus on the -S and -es choice.

    If a small number of conventions can explain the vast number of cases, we have evidence of an ordered system, not a disordered one. Here is a way to state the conventions I have learned:

    We have a default suffix for English words that marks plurals and third person that is written -S. When there are good reasons we cannot use this suffix, we use the -ES suffix instead. Here are three good reasons:

    1) If the suffix we need is syllabic, we need the version of this suffix that has the vowel letter that can represent the added syllable (e.g., BOOK - BOOKS, but BOX, BOXES). This convention explains the most common reason for the -ES suffix, and it has the particular advantage of reinforcing one of the most basic conventions of English spelling, that every spoken syllable needs at least one vowel letter to represent it.

    2) If adding the suffix forces a spelling change, use the -ES suffix. (leaf/v + s → leaves; try/i + es → tries).

    3) If the base or stem to which the suffix ends in the letter O, usually use the -ES suffix.

    This last convention is stated with “wiggle room”. But that is still not evidence that there is real inconsistency in the system. It is evidence that I have not yet discovered a more clear way to describe English words that appear to not follow this convention. It may be that this is an area of English spelling that has a handful of inconsistencies, but if that is the case, it is a far cry from evidence reinforcing the false idea that English spelling is highly disorganized.

    We also have to know that these conventions only apply to English words, that allows us to teach children about loan words -- again a concept with wide implications for the study of English spelling.

    If teachers and students test these assertions (as I hope you will!) the result will be increased understanding of our spelling system whether my assertions hold up the the evidence or not. If you find flaws and you tell me what they are, I will learn something new as well.

    I hope everyone doesn’t mind my long comments like this, but this is a personally important point for me. I spent the first 9 years of my teaching career as a terrible speller who thought teaching spelling was basically a waste of time because we had disordered system that had to be memorized. A 45 minute workshop from Real Spelling introduced me to coherent explanations for words like DOES, ROUGH, BUSINESS, ONE and many others that all my previous training had taught me to teach as irregular words. I didn’t understand the spelling system after that session, but I did have evidence that there was much more order than I previously believed, and I was willing to start investigating spelling in a scientific way. By starting that process my understanding and that of my students kept getting deeper and deeper. I would not have started that investigation unless I had evidence that spelling might just be highly ordered.

    My fear is that if we allow teachers and students to accept the premise that English spelling is full of errors, they will be denied the opportunity to start investigating it as a fascinating understandable system.

    I also couldn’t resist sharing because this is the central issue in the post Susan has invited me to present in the next Vocabulogic! I hope you stay tuned.

    PS My Oxford and Etymonline agree that KUDOS is not a plural. When I see a word that appears to violate a convention, I have reason to check that spelling, and I learn something new. The word KUDOS should not be taken as an example of spelling being crazy, but as an opportunity to learn something new!

    1. Thanks, Pete. I look forward to your upcoming post!

      Your comment is taken in the spirit given, and for the most part, I agree with your concerns. Children (and adults) need to learn to trust the orthographic system, for it does work much of the time. I do not use the word flawed in my post.

      However, the word consistent means just that, consistent. English orthography is not. English is fairly predictable or regular in spelling, especially through morphological patterns, and also if we consider the word's origin.

      Moreover, English is also an unusually large language, constantly borrowing words from afar, and those loan words become English words that we must learn to spell (or to find in a dictionary if we use them only rarely).

      To go a step further with this rich discussion, I would debate your RULE #3) If the base or stem to which the suffix [is added] ends in the letter O, usually use the -ES suffix. My argument is thus:

      From Word Searcher(dot)com website: There are 37 words ending with os (not o + -es). Most are plural nouns (but not all of them). Here are the 37 words:

      mottos (more commonly mottoes)
      grottos (more commonly spelled grottoes)
      mulattos (more commonly mulattoes)
      mosquitos (more commonly mosquitoes)


      In contrast, WordSearcher(dot)com only yielded 14 words that end with o+es, and some are more commonly spelled with os:

      toes (does not count, it is toe + -s)
      lassoes (more commonly lassos)
      tiptoes (tiptoe + -s)
      ghettoes (more commonly ghettos)
      mementoes (more commonly mementos)
      stilettoes (more commonly stilettos)
      manifestoes (more commonly manifestos)


      So, WordSearcher(dot)com data do not validate Rule #3, to add -es to singular nouns that end with the letter o.

      In addition, MoreWords(dot)com yielded 918 words that end with os. Many are loan words from Italian, Spanish, etc. However, many are not plural nouns and some are questionable as English words or for other reasons. Nonetheless, just glancing at the list, I see many more words, not listed in Word Searcher, that do not follow Rule #3, including adagios, aficionados, amigos, avocados, gyros, etc.

      Note the Spanish influence. Is there a rule of thumb for Spanish-derived loan words ending with o? (but we know there are inconsistencies, mentioned in the body of this post).


      How did Rule 3 come about? Am I missing something?

  5. Kudos, Susan for taking up the challenge!

    You have generated a great evidence bank to investigate. The first thing I note looking at your list is that I was not precise enough in my statement. I should have said that these conventions, like all English spelling conventions apply only to complete English words. By "complete" mean that words such as clips, are not necessarily bound by typical conventions. As an example in the context of another convention , REV is a clip of REVOLUTION. Thus it does not evidence of an "exception" to the convention that complete English words do not end in V. As well REVVING, the attested spelling when we add the -ING suffix is not an exception to the convention to avoid "VV' in complete English words. A convention I understand emerged to avoid visual confusion with the W.

    Among your list, I do notice some clips AUTO (AUTOMOBILE), PHOTO (PHOTOGRAPH). Also, of course we would have to investigate this list for lone words, which could not be used as evidence if lack of consistency in English spellings.

    If a teacher and classroom turned this into a group scientific investigation, I would be very curious what the size of the list would be that remained as evidence of inconsistency. It may or may not reduce to my description of a "handful". The first benefit of such an exercise would be a great deal of learning about words - let alone awareness to be careful about treating clips (also back-formations) and loan words as trustworthy words from which to draw conclusions about English spelling conventions.

    I'm more curious about investigating for my own understanding the apparent scarcity of words with an -ES suffix after a final O.

    I stand by my argument, that when teachers and students encounter an unexpected spelling, their starting point should be that it is vastly more likely that there is a good reason for that spelling that can be discovered through scientific investigation, as opposed to the uninvestigated assumption that it represents evidence of inconsistency of English spelling.

    If after an investigation of the evidence bank you have presented, the third convention I stated is untenable I will be most pleased to have learned that so that I don't continue to pass on an untenable assertion about spelling. The fact that I said "usually" was always a signal that there was more work to do on this one! Your response, especially with what appears to be a small list of -ES suffixes after the final -O has encouraged me to want to investigate that question. Thanks, and see you next post!


    1. Pete, talking with you is always interesting.

      Yes, some words I listed are clips. As you say, it is indeed good to teach students about clips, shortened words like auto. However, we must not diminish their "wordiness" just because they are clips--or foreign loan words for that matter. These are all "real" words, even if they do not fit a "flawless" structural model for affixation or derivational morphology. In fact, some words appear more commonly in their clipped form than in full form. Usually, we say "cell phone" but not "cellular telephone," for example. Some loan words are used commonly, too, includingpotatoes, avocados, burritos, etc.

      So, a word is a word, regardless of it's origin or structural form. My view, anyway! ;-)

      Let us know if you learn anything new about Rule 3 (you did say usually. I inserted that word the first time I cited Rule 3, but should have been consistent and done so each time I referred to the rule.

      Looking forward to your next post!

  6. Hey Susan,

    It might not surprise you, but I can't resist one final follow-up.

    I don't mean to imply in any way that words of these categories of words I've identified (clips, back-formations, loan words) are any less valid than any other. In fact it is an investigation like this that allows students and teachers to celebrate and gain control over this diversity of types of words that we have in our everyday use.

    All I want to emphasize is that by learning about these categories of words that linguists have long established, AND by being taught that these categories of words (and also function words) are not necessarily bound by the spelling conventions of complete English words, we make it possible to perceive the overwhelming order of English spelling. Once we have evidence of that order, we are motivated and able to investigate the spelling and meaning of words scientifically.

    Starting with the assumption that there is almost certainly a good reason for an unexpected spelling is transformative in the classroom. A student or teacher in such a class can see the word "kudos" and think, "Hmm. I thought it would be spelled *kudoes. I bet there is a good explanation for that." The assumption of order has the effect of turning words that appear to be "irregular" into the most interesting words to investigate.

    By contrast, starting with the assumption that English spelling is disordered gives no motivation for investigation. And of course, without scientific investigation, we never have actual evidence whether or not word a given word is irregular. In such a class the false assumption that a word like "kudos" is irregular prevails, and teachers and students feel they have more evidence of the craziness of English spelling. Yet another uninvestigated word is tossed into the pile of irregular words that kids have to memorize because we have such a crazy spelling system.

    So I hope that my emphasis of understanding categories of words that are not considered "complete English words" is NOT taken as diminishing the value of of those words. Just the opposite, I think, is the effect.

    Having investigated a word like "kudos" because it raised an interesting question is an extremely likely way to increase students desire and ability to use this word properly. It was not an accident that I used this word to start my first response to you. Similarly students who go through such an investigation are much more likely to use a wonderful word like "kudos" and when the do, they are likely to know (unlike most adults including me until yesterday) that it is not a plural!

    Here is the note on usage that my Oxford gave me that I only encountered because an interesting question about its structure was raised in your blog.

    "usage: Kudos comes from Greek and means ‘glory.’ Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that use as a plural, as in the following sentence, is incorrect: he received many kudos for his work (correct use is he received much kudos for his work)."

    In my experience, students love it when they learn something that they know many adults do not know.

    So all I can say is kudos to the wonderful diversity of the English language and its highly ordered spelling system that makes it possible for learners of all ages to investigate the history, structure and meaning of is countless fascinating and equally valuable words!



    PS if any one is curious about the term "function words" I tossed out there, you can learn about it along with resources for teaching about this concept in very young classrooms at this link:


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