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A Word, Please: Some plural usages have changed over time, others are still head-scratchers

Possessives come up a lot in this column. That’s no surprise. They’re some of the most perplexing issues in English, as we saw in our recent column on Jess’s vs. Jess’ (P.S. both are acceptable).

But plurals can be tough, too. We forget that because most plurals are easy: cats, dogs, cars, houses. Piece of cake.

Yet there are plenty of exceptions — plurals so hard to figure out that many people rewrite whole sentences to avoid them.

Some are based in foreign languages. Others are weird because the plural S comes in the middle of the term. Others are downright irregular.

Luckily, oddball plurals are in the dictionary, right next to the singular entry word. Stay on the lookout for these easy-to-get-wrong plurals. When in doubt, look them up.

For sheer wackiness, first prize goes to “passersby.” Like a lot of two-word compounds, passerby has, over time, gone from being hyphenated to being one word, called a “closed compound.”

Cellphone, healthcare and others start as two words and end up as one, often with a hyphenated phase in between. (Those two are still in flux, by the way.)

Some dictionaries still allow “passer-by,” but if history is any guide, its days are numbered.

The long-hyphenated “passer-by” took its plural S in the middle: passers-by. That’s not so odd. Mothers-in-law and other relations by marriage do, too.

But there’s no chance “mother-in-law” will become a closed compound, so there’s no chance “mothersinlaw” is in our future. The plural “passersby,” however, is now a reality — the preferred form in many dictionaries and most of the publishing world.

“Attorney general” is similar because it forms its plural internally: attorneys general. But it’s a little easier because there’s no hyphen connecting the words.

Also, as we reported here earlier this year, while “attorney” takes the plural S, “general” takes the possessive S. When you have multiple attorneys general in agreement, it’s the attorneys general’s consensus.

The term “chaise longue” has a pretty crazy plural story, too. For starters, most people write “lounge” instead of “longue,” and as a result “chaise lounge” has gained acceptability.

But almost no one stays true to this French term’s original plural, “chaises longues,” in which both words take a plural S. Instead, “chaise lounges” and “chaises longue” are emerging as the preferred forms.

As for your computer’s mouse, would you form its plural as “mouses” or “mice”? Believe it or not, the major dictionaries allow “mouses” as an alternate plural form. Happily, though, the preferred form is “computer mice.”

For words adopted from Latin, a lot of people assume that you have to use Latin grammar to form the plural. Not so. In some cases, English adopts the Latin plural, as we see with “bacteria” from the singular “bacterium” and “media” from the singular “medium.” But not always. “Octopus” and “cactus,” for example, can be properly made into plurals with English grammar rules. Thus, “octopuses” and “octopi” are both correct, as are “cactuses” and “cacti.”

A lot of words are the same in both singular and plural form: “deer” and “cattle” are examples. Other plurals are downright irregular: geese, feet, teeth. If you’re trying to learn English, no formula will get you to the plural of goose, foot or tooth. You just have to know them.

Then there are words such as “scissors” and “pants,” which even native English speakers puzzle over. Are they singular or plural? Surely a pair of scissors is a single tool, but can you call it “a scissors”? There’s a term for these terms, “plurale tantum,” meaning a plural word that represents a singular object. You can have “one scissors” or “20 scissors.” You can even have “one scissor.” But the most popular solution is to just call the instrument “a pair of scissors.”

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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