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Unconventional Singular And Plural Nouns In English

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English Language The Actor And The Action: Noun-Verb Agreement In English—Dr Ganiu Bamgbose

In this treatise, I describe as unconventional nouns those whose plural markers do not generate their plural forms. For such nouns, the addition of -s, – ies or -es usually generate meanings that are slightly or entirely different from the base words. With few of such words, the singular forms do not even mean just one item of what they refer to. This treatise will shed light on some of these nouns.

First and foremost, an aquatic creature with fins and gills is called a fish. The plural form is equally ‘fish’. Besides, the edible flesh obtained from the creature is ‘fish’ (uncountable). It behoves you, therefore, to say:
I can see seven fish in the pond (standard).
I don’t like eating fish (standard).

However, ‘fishes’ could be used when one refers to different species of fish. In that case, one could say:
The fishermen caught some salmon, tilapias, cod and other fishes (standard).
Similar to fish is ‘fruit’. The usually sweet-tasting parts of trees are collectively known as fruit (not ‘fruits’). The accompanying example sentences demonstrate the appropriate and inappropriate usages of fruit:

Bode eats fruits and vegetables every day (non-standard).
Bode eats fruit and vegetables every day (standard).
An orange is a fruit (non-standard).
Orange is a piece of fruit (standard).

However, the use of ‘fruits’ is permissible when you are referring to specific classes of fruit, as in:
Oranges, lemons, grapes, tangerines and limes are citrus fruits (standard).

My father cultivates tropical fruits like bananas and pineapples (standard).

Additionally, note that fruit can attract ‘s’ when it is used as an idiom to mean the good things or gains that follow a person’s hard work. For instance:
May you reap the fruits of your labour (standard).

Unconventional Singular And Plural Nouns In English

We should also understand the slight difference between ‘vice’ and ‘vices’. On the one hand, vice is an uncountable noun that means illegal activities, including illicit sex, drug peddling, human trafficking and kidnapping. On the other, vices are moral faults such as greed, pride, envy and lust, or disgusting habits like binge-drinking and gambling addiction. When reference is accorded to just one of these bad habits, the singular noun, vice, can be used. The following sentences buttress the usages of the words:

The Inspector-General of Police said he was committed to eradicating vices in Nigeria (non-standard).
The Inspector-General of Police said he was committed to eradicating vice in Nigeria (standard).
He exhibits all the major vices you can think of (standard).
His only vice is to get drunk on beer (standard).

Also, another pair of oft-misused words include ‘damage’ and ‘damages’. While damage, as an uncountable noun, means harm, notwithstanding its degree or enormity, damages refer to the money paid to a person by someone else or an organisation, for the injury or loss caused. The usages are shown in the following sentences:
The collapse caused serious damages (non-standard).
The collapse caused serious damage (standard).
The judge awarded them $500 in damages (standard).

What is more, ‘inconvenience’ and ‘inconveniences’ should not be deployed arbitrarily. While the former refers to ‘troubles or problems’, the latter represents ‘people who constitute a nuisance’ or ‘things that cause difficulties’. Along the same lines, I have noticed over time that anglophones in Nigeria confuse ‘property’ with ‘properties’. As a mass noun, ‘property’ refers to the entirety of one’s possessions. This is why, by and large, we say:
The police are tasked with protecting lives and property (standard).

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By contrast, ‘property, as a count noun, is real estate jargon. It represents a building or buildings and the surrounding land only. Consequently, it can be pluralised thus:
There are a lot of rental properties on Victoria Island (standard).

In furtherance of that, ‘devotion’ and ‘devotions’ should not be mistaken for one another. As an uncount noun, devotion indicates the overwhelming love, care and support one affords other people, as in:
Stephanie’s passionate devotion to her spouse and offspring is laudable (standard).
In striking contrast, devotions, which is decidedly plural, refers to prayers and other religious undertakings. For this very reason, we say:
The morning devotion is held at 9 a.m. (non-standard).
The morning devotions are held at 9 a.m. (standard).

Yet again, the items contained in a bag, room, box, letter and so forth, or the different sections which are contained in a book, are irreversibly called contents (a plural noun). In other words:
John, kindly refer to the table of content (non-standard).
John, kindly refer to the table of contents (standard).
He was oblivious of the contents of the letter (standard).
I searched the contents of his bag (standard).

In comparison, the pieces of information—aside from the software—available on the Internet, or the items one posts on social media, are conclusively designated as ‘content’.
I have warned you not to tag me in those kinds of Facebook contents (non-standard).
I have warned you not to tag me in those kinds of Facebook content (standard).

Last but not least, acceptable moral and social conduct is regarded as ‘propriety’ (a non-count noun), while the rules of correct behaviour are adjudged to be ‘proprieties’ (a plural noun; otherwise called ‘etiquette’).

The general users of English must be mindful of the semantic irregularities exhibited by a myriad of nouns. Hence, it is essential to look up the meanings of such words, in the event of uncertainty.
© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)
Department of English,
Lagos State University

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