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I’m proofreading for a friend (not that I am an expert on English or his subject matter!), and he has used the word stiffnesss in an engineering context.

I believed the plural should be stiffnesses, but a quick Internet search suggests that stiffness might be a noun without a plural, such as sheep or furniture.

Excerpted examples:

connected to its neighbour by spring and bending stiffness’s

these stiffness’s and the damping encountered are calculated by

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Maybe it should be "degrees of stiffness" rather than "stiffnesses", although I agree with you that between stiffness's and stiffnesses, only the latter is possible. Can you give us the sentence? – user21497 Apr 23 '13 at 9:47
Stiffness can have a plural if you are talking of a variety of materials which have different stiffnesses. [Hm. Firefox has squiggled that as a misspelling. But then it doesn't like "Firefox" either.] Anyway, it was OK when I was an engineering undergraduate. – Andrew Leach Apr 23 '13 at 9:55
Different materials may have different values for their stiffness parameter or different degrees of stiffness but they can not have "stiffnesses". In this case, the principle of euphony should prevail (even in engineering). – Fortiter Apr 23 '13 at 10:55
Could I ask why this got a down-vote, and how I might improve the question to correct it? – pete the pagan-gerbil Apr 23 '13 at 11:36
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The -ness suffix is an extremely productive one in English, with thousands of resulting words being attested by the dictionary and more being coined daily as need or whim arises.

Although it is typically used to turn adjectives and participles into abstract nouns expressing a state or condition, like hardness or willingness, it can even be roped into service by pronouns and adverbs, as in me-ness or everydayness.

In general, the resulting state or condition is considered a mass noun not a count noun. Words like kindness, happiness, openness, darkness, and madness do not normally lend themselves to inflected plurals like kindnesses, happinesses, opennesses, darknesses, and madnesses.

However, like other mass nouns, these can become plurals when you are discussing separate instances of that thing, such as the darkness of a moonless night being distinct from the darkness of a shuttered room, and those therefore being two different darknesses, or even simply speaking of small acts of kindness as kindnesses.

Moreover, some common words ending in -ness have more readily passed into count-noun territory, including such words as illnesses and businesses. This is more easily done once the word is no longer apprehended as having been a base adjective to which a substantive-producing suffix has been applied.

So while you would be in unassailable territory using a construction like “different degrees of stiffness”, writing “different stiffnesses” can certainly make sense in the right context.

PS: Words like witness and wilderness, and of course lioness and villainness, have their own stories. The first pair gained their -ness long ago and have no base words to which we can now reduce them, while the second pair are actually the feminizing -ess suffix applied to a word that already ends in -n.

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So in conclusion, 'maybe' is the answer ;) I'll pass on this feedback to the author, thank you very much. – pete the pagan-gerbil Apr 23 '13 at 18:31

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