Posted by: Jack Henry | August 2, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Plurale Tantum

The other day I taunted you with the term pluralia tantum to describe words like pants and trousers. Now to define the term and provide you with some common examples outside of the clothes you wear on your legs. Plurale tantum is Latin for “plural only,” which describes nouns that are used only in the plural form. Since we’re talking about more than one noun, that translated to pluralia tantum (rather than plurale tantums).

The following selections are from an article by Grammar Girl.


The first known uses of the word "scissors" are actually singular—spelled in a variety of ways, including starting with "cy." That was in the 15th century, and the plural version quickly overtook the former in popularity. While you’d still hear "scissor" as a verb, or to form a compound noun like "scissor kick," you’re unlikely to come across a single scissor. The same is true of many other two-bladed tools – like "pliers," "forceps," "shears," "tweezers" and "tongs."


When we’re talking about eyewear, the word "glasses" is like "spectacles," "goggles," or "binoculars": today, you’ll only hear them used as plurals. Things get a bit more complex if you pop "a pair of" in front of the words. The "a" suggests you should treat "a pair of glasses" as singular, but research shows that you’re equally likely to come across "a pair of glasses are" as "a pair of glasses is."


Sticking with the world of attire, we speak of "clothes" but never of a single "clothe." "Clothe" exists as a verb, and "cloth" is a common singular noun—but isn’t used to mean "a garment." Not anymore, at least. In the late-14th century, "cloth" was indeed used to mean a single garment. You’ll find that in "Piers Plowman" and the works of Chaucer. Nowadays, you’d have to use "an article of clothing" to get the same meaning.


A plurale tantum doesn’t have to be a tangible object. Another example is the word "shenanigans." It means "secret or dishonest activity or maneuvering," or "silly or high-spirited behavior," but its etymological origins aren’t clear. What is known is that its earliest known use, in a mid-19th century article, is in the singular "shenanigan." The singular was in use for another hundred years, but in recent decades, you’ll only find the plural "shenanigans."


What are the odds? Whether you’re talking about gambling, chance, or an argument where you’re "at odds" with someone else, you won’t get a single "odd." As you might expect, this plurale tantum comes from the adjective "odd," originally with the idea of "unequal things." This broadened into various ideas of difference—particularly in likelihood and probability.


Finally, thanks for reading – and, yes, "thanks" is the final plurale tantum. You’d find "thank" in the words "thank you," of course, but you wouldn’t give someone a single "thank." Unless, that is, you were in Ancient Britain and used the Old English "thanc," ending in a "c," from which the modern word derived.

I was so happy to find this term to describe things like scissors and other words that always appear as plurals. May you be lucky and have it appear in your near future while doing a crossword puzzle or hanging out at the bar for trivia night!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her

Technical Editor, Advisory

Editor’s Corner Archives:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: