Spelling plurals

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I'm always amused to find spelling books containing rules like: "To form the plural of most nouns we just add an 's'", as though children not taught this are likely to say or write the plural of "cat" as "catm" or "catb".

Spelling regular plurals

The only tricky thing about spelling regular plurals for most children is knowing to use the letter "s" regardless of whether the plural morpheme sounds like:

  • "s" as in "cats", "ducks", "tops" and "chefs", when it follows a voiceless sound, or
  • "z" as in "bees", "hens", "bags" and "gloves", when it follows a voiced sound.

Well, rappers write what they hear: "dogz", "beatz" and "boyz", but the rest of us stick with the letter "s".

This also applies to:

  • third person singular "s" verb endings, as in "he jumps", "she swims" and "it flies" (not "she swimz" or "it fliez")
  • possessive apostrophe + "s" as in "Tim's cat", "Pat's dog" and "Jan's last holiday" (not "Tim'z cat" or "Jan'z holiday")

Spelling "es" plurals

Kids without language difficulties don't need to be formally taught to add a syllable, not just the sound "s", when saying plurals like "classes", "fizzes", "dishes", "mirages", "watches" and "fridges". Ditto for third person "es" verbs like "rushes", "kisses", "fixes" or "watches" (click here for more words like this).

Like all languages, English has rules about which sounds go together (phonotactics) that make some words "sound English" (like "Smith" and "Brown") while others don't (like "Djokovic" and "Kvitova").

English phonotactics don't permit a regular plural "s/z" sound right after another "s" or "z" (alveolar fricative) sound, a "sh" or "zh" (post-alveolar fricative) sound or a "ch" or "j" (post-alveolar affricate) sound.

These sounds are too close together in the mouth. To hear the plural as a separate sound/morpheme, we separate it from the previous sound with a vowel. Despite what spelling books say, this is a sounds issue, not a letters one.

The only potentially-tricky things when spelling "es" plurals are:

  • knowing to use the vowel letter "e" for the last, unstressed vowel sound (so "buses" not "busas", "busis" or "busus")
  • knowing that if the word already ends in an "e" (as in "horse", "breeze", "moustache", "fuselage" and "lounge"), there's no need to add another one. Just add "s".

Kids who know how to spell words like "bees" and "trees" aren't likely to write "horsees" or "breezees" anyway, so when learners are taught to spell short words before long words, this shouldn't be a problem.

If you focus on letters rather than sounds when spelling plurals, and learn (for example) that we put "es" after nouns ending with the letters "ch", "sh", "s", "z" and "x", you'll also have to learn a list of exceptions like "monarch", "stomach", "diptych", "matriarch" and "epoch".

These nouns all end with a "k" sound, spelt the Greek way: "ch". The sound "k" can have the sound "s" straight after it, so it's OK to just add "s" to make these words plural: "monarchs", "stomachs" etc. If you know how to say these words, and decide how to write the plural based on their sounds, spelling their plurals should be no problem.

Spelling f-ve plurals

Many spelling books tie themselves up in hilarious knots trying to explain the spelling of plurals like "shelves" and "loaves", saying things like: When a noun ends in "f: or "fe" we change the "f" or "fe" to "v" and add "es" to form the plural. Exceptions are "reefs", "roofs", "waifs", "chiefs"and "gulfs". Either "wharf" or "wharves" and either "hoofs" or "hooves" is acceptable. When a noun ends in "ff", add an "s" to form the plural.

Leaving aside the point that many of these words are also verbs ("he shelves the books", "she halves the number" etc), what learners really need to be taught to do is listen to the words. If the end of the word contains a "v" sound, write "ve" (we don't usually have just "v" at the end of a word in English, unless it's a chopped-in-half word like "pav" or "Bev" or "gov").

Some people say "dwarfs" and others say "dwarves", some people say "hoofs" and others say "hooves". It's OK to write either (whether it rhymes with breather or blither).

I say "scarves" and "musical staves" but I've discovered some people say and write "scarfs" and "staffs". I say "roofs" but some people still say the older form "rooves". But nobody says "gulves" or "chieves", so we don't write them either. The only English word I know with a "v" sound spelt with a letter "f" is "of".

Click here for some more words ending in "f" and their plurals.

Spelling oes plurals

Some nouns ending in "o" get "oes" at the end when made plural: tomato-tomatoes, mango-mangoes, hero-heroes etc. Many others don't: piano-pianos, radio-radios, silo-silos etc. Some can have either "os" or "oes": buffalos/buffaloes, cargos/cargoes, mosquitos/mosquitoes etc.

The sounds of these words don't help with their spellings, so these are real spelling things that do need to be taught in a spelling lesson.

Spelling books tend to suggest teaching rules like: Add an "s" to words ending in a vowel plus "o" like "radio" and "zoo", shortened words like "photo" and "logo", proper nouns like "Filipino" and "Picasso", Spanish and Italian words like "taco", "stiletto", and words which have been relatively recently borrowed from other languages like "kimino" and "casino".

Which is all very well if you know this sort of stuff about the words that end in "o", but the word "kimino" came into English in the 1630s, "embargoes" with "oes" are from Spanish, and even I didn't know that "logo" was short for "logotype". The most useful way to teach these plurals is by providing lots of example words and organising them into groups according to their final spellings.

Spelling ies plurals

A similar problem occurs when making nouns ending in "y" plural. The "y" often changes to "ies": fly-flies, sky-skies, baby-babies, hobby-hobbies etc. but if you focus learners' attention on letters not sounds and spellings, you can expect them to then start writing highway-highwais, donkey-donkeis, decoy-decois. It's not letters that matter, it's sounds and their spellings.

The letter "y" changes to "i" or "ie" when adding more than just plural morphemes, for example "funny-funnier-funniest" and "dignify-dignifies-dignified", but not in "dignifying". It depends on the vowel in the chunk you're adding.

"Dignifiing" violates an English which-letters-can-go-together (orthotactic) rule that really only allows double "i" in Latin plurals like "genius-genii" and "radius-radii". Though after we borrowed "ski" from Norwegian we weren't quite sure how else to spell "skiing", and ditto when we shortened "taximetre" to "taxi" and applied it to what planes do on runways. Other words with double "i" like "shiitaake" and Shiite" (or "Shi'ite") tend to be loanwords from other languages, including Advertish:

Words with ii

Spelling Latin and Greek plurals

We have some other funny plurals in English, most of them drawn from Latin and/or Greek:

  • bacterium-bacteria, curriculum-curricula, medium-media
  • crisis-crises, diagnosis-diagnoses, thesis-theses
  • vortex-vortices, matrix-matrices, appendix-appendices
  • automaton-automata, criterion-criteria, phenomenon-phenomena
  • alumnus-alumni, nucleus-nuclei, stimulus-stimuli (but apparently the Greek plural of the Greek word "platypus" is "platypodes")
  • alga-algae, larva-larvae, vertebra-vertebrae
  • bureau-bureaux, gateau-gateaux, tableau-tableaux
  • libretto-libretti, tempo-tempi, virtuoso-virtuosi
  • cherub-cherubim, seraph-seraphim

Some of these plural words are now often used as singular nouns e.g. "data" and "media", and many also have regular plural forms e.g, index-indices/indexes, focus-foci/focuses. Language is dynamic, and morphemes morph all the time.

Spelling irregular plurals

Most irregular plural forms are spelt regularly, so there's no need for a special spelling lesson on plurals like "feet", "teeth", "fish", "deer", "men", "children", "mice" etc. for learners who can say these forms correctly. Most children can do this from around age six. They can learn "feet" and "teeth" with other "ee" words, "foot" and "tooth" with other "oo" words and "goose" and "geese" with other words ending in "se".

Many older, language-impaired children still say "foots", "deers", "mans", "childs" or "mouses", and do have to be taught these irregular forms in both speech and writing. For everyone else, it's really just the "o" in "women" and the "eo" in "people" that cause spelling trouble.

However, children are often interested to learn that "en" is an Old English plural form, which is why we say man-men, woman-women, child-children, ox-oxen and some people still say brother-brethren. Old English is also where we get louse-lice and mouse-mice (but die-dice). Grouping words with similar patterns like this can also help children remember the patterns, and should help them to get the "e" in "children" and the "ou" in "louse" correct, once they all get back to school after a period of taking selfies and sharing insects, and have to write about the experience.

Click here for lists of unusual plurals.

Spelling other morphemes

A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language. Words like "cat" and "bus" and "banana" are "free morphemes" which can stand alone as words, while word-bits like plural "s" or "es", past tense "ed", "ish" and "ing" are "bound morphemes", always attached to another morpheme. English bound morphemes are either prefixes (before a root word) or suffixes (after it), but some languages drop morphemes into the middles of words (infixes). Sometimes we build words by combining several prefixes and suffixes e.g. "antidisestablishmentarianism" (anti + dis + establish + ment + arian + ism). So it's useful to know what prefixes and suffixes mean if you want to understand words built with them.

However, some spelling books seem to want to teach not just plurals but every morpheme in English to learners, even ones with regular spellings that they can already use in ordinary conversation.

The morphemes "ness" as in "fairness" and "ment" as in "embarrassment" are not really things that need their own spelling lesson. Once you know how to spell "mess" and "less" and "sent" and "went", and you know to pronounce each syllable as though it stood alone when spelling ("peace…ful…ness", "em…bar…rass…ment" etc), and you know the base words, you can spell lots of words ending in the morphemes "ness" and "ment".

Likewise, there's nothing terribly tricky about spelling the "ant" in "mutant" or "coolant", the "ity" in "prosperity" and "equality", the "sub" in "subtract" and "subway" or the "mal" in "malcontent" or "maladjusted". Yes, learning that "sub" means "under" and "mal" means bad can help your vocabulary, but these suffixes crop up in listening, speaking, reading and writing, they aren't specific to spelling.

Enjoyable discussions can be had with older kids about the structure of new, made-up words like "facepalm", "amazeballs", "infovore", "undorse", "churnalism", "gamify" and "googleganger", and these can then lead into studying groups of words which share morphemes, how they are spelt and what they mean e.g. herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, insectivore, infovore. The Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year is a good source of new, interesting words, and the MoreWords website is a good way to find words containing a particular morpheme, for example click here for words ending with "ism".

Most morphemes' sound-letter relationships are very predictable once you know the basic spellings of each sound, so learning about them is more of a grammar or vocabulary exercise than a spelling one. Morphemes are something with which marketing/branding people have lovely fun, and kids can too. Ask them to bring photos of shop signs like this one here in Melbourne (the shop is equally lovely), and explain what they mean (do you think the "en" means the same as in "brethren"? etc)…embiggen



2 thoughts on “Spelling plurals

  1. Pingback: Plurals – a useful explantion | Phonic Books

  2. Kelvin Eldridge

    Thank you Alison. I get notified of pages relating to spelling because of my interest in the preferred Australian English spelling. I enjoyed reading your article and seeing spelling though the eyes of another person with a different background and approach.



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