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I'm reading a novel based in ye olde pirate-times, and I have come across the author's usage of "cannon" (without the "s") to refer to multiple cannons.

The ship boasted 32 cannon onboard.

Is this just an archaic usage that the author is employing for purposes of story-telling? Also, how/why did this evolve to "cannons" in modern usage?

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Interesting question. In German, a very similar thing can be observed with man: "We had 32 man onboard", "an army of 10,000 man", etc. (yes, singular). It is especially common in the military domain, and has been for centuries, but it has long spread out into everyday language as well. "Eight man are working on fixing the bugs" is something a native German speaker would produce without hesitation. Saying "eight men" instead would actually sound quite funny. –  RegDwigнt Oct 30 '10 at 16:27
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@RegDwight: We do it exactly the same way in Dutch, in the context of a group of people (can be women) working on something, personnel, staff, something like that. Er werken tien man aan dat project ("ten man are working on that project"). The verb is plural, while man is singular (plural would be mannen). However, this is not at all possible with kanon: it must always be pluralized if you have several guns (kanonnen). –  Cerberus Jan 31 '12 at 20:17
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Strange as it seems, cannon does appear to have once been a mass noun, like rain or infantry. Instead of saying rains, one says drops of rain. Similarly, instead of saying cannons, it appears that one either said cannon or pieces of cannon. Consider the google Ngram below:

two cannon/cannons/pieces of cannon

Here, the curve for two cannon is higher than it should be, because of constructions like two cannon balls.

Tsuyoshi is right about cannons being the plural in the 1500's; Google Ngrams doesn't have adequate data before early the 1700's, but we can check Shakespeare, who uses cannon as a regular count noun. So the plural has gone from cannons, to pieces of cannon, to cannon, and back to cannons.

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Personally, I think cannon is indeed supposed to be a quantity noun. This isn't widely known today simply because cannon themselves are obsolete. –  T.E.D. Aug 10 '11 at 17:52
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I do not know English well enough to say anything about the question from my personal experience. However, a quick look at dictionaries suggests that it may not be the case that the plural form of “cannon” evolved from “cannon” to “cannons.”

  • The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (cannon, n.1 2b; the linked page requires subscription) lists the use of “cannon” as a collective noun and as plural, but it does not state that this use is obsolete. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary also lists both “cannons” and “cannon” as the plural forms of the noun “cannon.” (I do not personally know whether the construct such as “32 cannon” is correct in the modern English.)
  • The first quotation of “cannons” cited in OED is in 1525, which is earlier than the first quotation of “cannon” as a collective noun or plural in 1596.
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Similar usage occurs when describing naval ships from the days of sail: e.g. "a 28-gun frigate. Readers of Bernard Cornwell's tales of the Peninsular War against Napoleon will see repeated use, as in "the French cannon opened the attack." And then there's Tennyson's "Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered."

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The grammar of "28-gun frigate" isn't the same as "frigate with 28 cannon". We never talk about "four-doors cars", for example, but it would be perfectly ok to speak of a "frigate with 28 cannons". It's just that cannon can be singular or plural. –  FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 23:45
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protected by RegDwigнt Aug 10 '11 at 13:58

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