11 Nouns That Only Have a Plural Form

iStock.com/Wega52
iStock.com/Wega52

Of all the grammar concepts we have, “plural” seems to be one of the most straightforward. You got one thing? It’s singular. Got more than one thing? It’s plural. But alas, language is always less straightforward than we expect. The way we conceptualize something—as one thing or many things—doesn’t always match up with the way our word for it behaves. There are some nouns that only have a plural form, regardless of how we think of them. They are known as pluralia tantum, Latin for “plural only.” Here are 11 of them.

1. Scissors

Scissors has a plural verb agreement. We say, “the scissors are over there,” not "the scissors is over there." Scissors likes to hang on to its s. We can say “give me a pair of scissors,” but not “give me a scissor.” True, there is a sense in which scissors are two objects, two blades, being used as one tool, and many similar tools are also pluralia tantum: pliers, tongs, tweezers, forceps. But not all such tools are plural. A clamp, a bear trap, and a flat iron are also tools made of two joined parts, and they are singular.

2. Goggles

Goggles, glasses, and binoculars only show up in the plural. They are also generally conceived of as unitary objects, though they are made up of two connected parts. When new words are coined for things that function in front of the eyes, they will usually inherit the grammatical plurality (Blue Blockers, RayBans), but not always (see View-Master, Google Glass).

3. Pants

In the rarefied world of fashion reporting, you may see pant show up as a singular noun (“a floral pant is a must-have for spring”), but for the rest of us, pants is strictly plural. The tendency toward plural forms for clothing that provides separate enclosures for the two legs is strong: shorts, jeans, bloomers, tights, leggings, trousers, chaps, etc. The tendency for new such words to be coined with plurality is also strong: bell bottoms, skinnies, capris. We even say things like, “Levis are popular,” even though the brand name is actually not plural, but possessive—Levi’s.

4. Panties

The word underwear is a mass noun that takes singular agreement (“your underwear is showing”) but there are a cluster of pluralia tantum underwear words. In addition to panties, we have drawers, boxers, briefs, and tighty whities. Interestingly, thong is singular (perhaps because leg enclosure has little to do with it?), and so is bra (though it shares the shape characteristics of glasses and goggles).

5. Clothes

Pluralia tantum are often objects that involve some kind of connected pairing of two identical things, but they can also be terms for large collections of dissimilar things. Clothes, for example, can be shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, or underwear (we never say clothe to mean a singular item of clothing). Similarly, manners can be ways of talking, eating, or greeting.

6. Riches

There are a number of pluralia tantum that refer to possession or ownership. In addition to riches, there are furnishings, belongings, earnings, and valuables.

7. Jitters

There are also a few pluralia tantum having to do with mood or feelings. You can have the blues or be in the doldrums, but not have a blue or be in a doldrum. Likewise, jitters, willies, and heebie-jeebies always come in groups.

8. Shenanigans

Words for activities that might be individually very different in their specifics but similar in some general aspect will sometimes be pluralia tantum. You may indulge in shenanigans, heroics, or hysterics, or sometimes all three.

9. Remains

There is a small group of pluralia tantum for what’s left after the dust has settled. They may be remains, ruins, or leftovers.

10. Annals

There does happen to be a singular noun annal. It means the recorded events of one year. But we almost never see it this way. Most of us use annals in the way we use other plurals from set, antiquated phrases—pluralia tantum like alms and amends.

11. Suds

Suds is a strange one. Usually a word for a mass of stuff made of of teeny, tiny individuated parts will be a mass noun. For example, rice, sand, sugar, and salt are all mass nouns. Mass nouns have singular verb agreement (“the rice is cooked”). Suds is a plural noun and has plural agreement (“the suds are everywhere”). Does this mean we care more about individual soap bubbles than individual grains of rice? Probably not. Is that what a sud even is? A bubble? It doesn’t matter anyway, because we can know what suds are without knowing what a sud is. That’s the beauty of pluralia tantum.

A version of this list first ran in 2013.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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