Plurals In English – Word classes such as nouns and pronouns exhibit plurality as one of their features in English. Different languages account for plurality in different ways. In Yoruba, for instance, another lexical item is usually added to a noun to mark plurality thus:
Ilé ńlá (a big house)
Ilé ńlá méjì (two big houses)
Àwọn ilé ńlá (some big houses)
In all of these examples given, no inflection is added to the noun “ilé” (house). This means that Yoruba does not pluralise nouns through inflexions, and that interferes with the use of English by many Yoruba and, by extension, Nigerians who, eventually, fail to pluralise nouns appropriately in English. It is highly probable that every Nigerian writer has unconsciously written a sentence like “Some of our students are coming tomorrow” at one time or the other, only to remember to pluralise the noun “student” at the second reading.
This is because most Nigerian languages do not mark nominal plurality through inflections such as “-s” and “-es”. As a first lesson, Nigerian users of English must pay attention to pluralisation in English language usage, as it is one of the unconscious errors found even among good users of the language. Undeniably, the pluralisation of nouns is a more complex grammatical feature in English. The rest of this piece will, therefore, address other forms of nouns aside from the regular nouns that attract the “-s” and “-es” suffixes in English.
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First off, we should know the difference between invariable nouns and zero plural nouns. Invariable nouns could either be singular (music, news) or plural (cattle), but they do not change forms. The ones that are singular are always used as singular, and the ones that are plural remain plural as depicted below:
The news is being broadcast by all stations (correct).
The news are being broadcast by all stations (incorrect).
This cattle is being fattened up for slaughter (incorrect).
These cattle are being fattened up for slaughter (correct).
While invariable nouns could be singular or plural and are constantly so, zero plural nouns can either be represented as singular or plural, and they attract either a singular verb or a plural verb (for example, “is” or “are”) and either a singular or plural determiner (for instance, “this” or “these”):
This sheep does not look healthy (correct; singular).
These sheep do not look healthy (correct; plural).
Other examples in this category are “deer”, “swine” and “cod”. In nationalities, countries such as Japan and Taiwan will also generate zero plural nouns as “Japanese” could refer to a person or more from Japan:
I saw a Japanese yesterday (correct; one person).
I saw Japanese yesterday (correct; two or more persons).
Moreover, nouns such as “hundred” and “thousand” are called quantitative nouns. Note that they are not pluralised unless when they serve as the first word or headword of a noun phrase, as shown below:
Speaker 1: How many will you need?
Speaker 2: I will need four hundreds (incorrect).
I will need four hundred (correct).
Hundred of people come here daily (incorrect).
Hundreds of people come here daily (correct).
Again, note that there are many invariable nouns ending in “-s” which should take a singular verb. Some of these nouns are diseases such as measles, mumps, and rickets; subjects such as physics, classics, and linguistics; games such as draughts, snakes and ladders, billiards, darts; and proper names such as the United Nations, Athens and Brussels:
The United Nations are hosting the next summit in Nigeria (incorrect).
The United Nations is hosting the next summit in Nigeria (correct).
Linguistics are interesting (incorrect).
Linguistics is interesting (correct).
Measles are deadly (incorrect).
Measles is deadly (correct).
In furtherance of the foregoing, other nouns with similar forms can attract either singular or plural verbs, depending on their usages. Nouns in this category are: barracks, gallows, headquarters and so on. Example sentences are given below:
The barracks was surrounded by a high wall (correct).
The barracks were surrounded by a high wall (correct).
The company’s headquarters has been relocated to Nigeria (correct).
The company’s headquarters have been relocated to Nigeria (standard).
Another class of nouns that can be treated as both singular and plural are the ones ending in “-ies” such as series and species. Their usages are shown in the following example sentences:
He had a series of lectures (correct).
He had two series of lectures (correct).
Mountain gorillas are an uncommon species (correct).
We can find at least five species of trees in this forest (correct).
The pluralisation system is, indeed, a complex part of English grammar. Hence, the next treatise will explore this grey area more deeply.
Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)
Department of English,
Lagos State University