Plural is one way that the grammatical category of number is represented in many languages. This may be expressed by the addition of an ending to a word, such as -s added to nouns in English: e.g. cat would refer to one cat, or the species generally, while cats refers to more than one. Other languages use an extra word to represent plurality, and some use no true plural form at all; all languages, however, have some way of expressing how many of something there is.
All languages have a default singular form - typically, the absence of an affix or pluralising word. Many make a further distinction with the plural form, but no others. Apparently, very few or no languages reverse this generalisation by making the plural bare and marking the singular. However, many languages do have extra categories of number: Arabic, for instance, has a dual form to mark two referents, as well as singular and plural. A small number of languages also have trial and quadral forms, for three or four referents, and some have a paucal form, indicating 'a few'. Linguists also distinguish singulative and plurative forms, where singular forms are derived from the plural and vice-versa, in cases where the noun refers to more than one unit but functions as a single form, e.g. family must refer to at least two people, but is grammatically singular. In this way, Welsh 'mouse' is derived from 'mice' - llygod-en from llygod.
In many languages the plural of nouns is explicitly marked; but in others, such as Japanese, there is no obligatory plural word or affix. Instead, a variety of alternatives may be used, depending on meaning and context. For example, Japanese obligatorily uses 'counters' to explicitly denote number: kippu-o ni-mai kudasai means 'two tickets, please', where kippu is 'ticket[s]' and -mai is attached to the numeral to indicate flat things are being quantified. (In context, kippu-o is often dropped since it is clear from -mai what is being requested.) A buyer of two books would use the counter -satsu, used with bound items: hon-o ni-satsu kudasai. English uses the same system in a more limited way: for instance, speakers must refer to 'three sheets of paper', rather than *'three papers'.
Plural marking may be blocked on some words that are 'irregular' or 'exceptions'. For instance, in English some plurals have no markers: 'sheep' is an example of such a 'non-count noun'. 'Count nouns' take the usual plural marker.
The English plural marker is represented in writing as -s, but it has several different pronunciations depending on its phonological environment: after a voiced sound, for instance, it is [-z], a voiced sibilant fricative, while after a voiceless sound it also agrees in voicing, with [-s]. After a sibilant, an epenthetic vowel is inserted: in gases, for instance, the plural is [-ɪz].
In the past, there were several competing English plural markers, depending on the form of the word. For example, the plural of fox for some speakers would have been foxen. In time, all these forms were ousted, except for a subset of words which today are exceptions, such as oxen and geese. As these apparent plural markers are not productive, i.e. are generally not applied to new words, arguably the -en form or the alternation of a vowel do not constitute genuine plural markers. The sole productive form is -s, which children will instinctively add to words for which they have only heard the singular.
Pronouns have lexical plurals in English, where the plural of I is we. This is true of many languages, which may make further distinctions or not make those that are found in English. For example, Amharic has masculine and feminine forms of its equivalents of 'you', and has further forms to express 'respect', i.e. formality towards the hearer or a third person. However, there is no equivalent of 'it'. Forms can change over time as well: In English, the originally plural-only you now does the work of the singular thou, which is no longer used.
Verbs have different forms according to several criteria, number being merely one of them. In many languages, there is a degree of agreement with a noun; for example, in English -s is added to the verb in the third person present singular, e.g. he walks but they walk. In many other languages, this agreement is far more extensive, with all or most forms of the verb being marked for number. For example, the Hungarian verb tudni 'to know' changes depending on number, but also person: én tudom 'I know', but ők tudják 'they know'.
- Katamba & Stonham (2006: 250).
- Greenberg (1966: 28).
- Corbett (2000).
- Glottopedia: Singulative'. 10th October 2007 version.
- -o marks the object of the verb.
- '*' indicates that what follows is grammatically unacceptable to speakers of that language.
- Pinker (2000).
- Lexical differences among languages - some reasons languages differ lexically - course website by Mike Gasser.
- As this form is added only to the third person present singular, it cannot be said that English has 'plural verbs': rather, verbs are in most cases unmarked for number.