Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

English has two grammatical categories of number. One is the singular, and the other is the plural. Many nouns in English have different singular and plural forms. When nouns are borrowed from other languages into English, the plural form in the source language comes with it (at least sometimes). However, not all languages have the same grammatical number categories that English has. I think that some don't decline at all for number. Some have more categories, like the dual and the trial[1]. If you import a noun from a language with more categories, do you use any different dual, trial, etc. forms that the noun has in the source language? What about if you import a noun from a language that doesn't have grammatical number? Do you decline it for number using English's "default" -s/-es scheme?

This is mostly or entirely contrived (currently, anyway).

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_number#Types_of_number
share|improve this question
When we actually "import" a foreign word into English, we don't normally take account of any rules of grammatical number in the original language. Since the newly-imported word will be unfamiliar to native English speakers, they will treat it as a regular singular form, with a regular plural formed by adding -s/-es. –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '12 at 18:36
When you borrow a word, you don't borrow the entire grammar. The whole point of borrowing a word into English is to make it an English word, i.e. to make it obey the rules of English grammar. Of course there are always exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions. Irregular plurals are called irregular for a reason. –  RegDwigнt Jun 7 '12 at 18:38
I voted to close as Too Localised, but in fact it should have been as a duplicate of Should nouns borrowed from Japanese be pluralized? –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '12 at 18:52
Um, you don’t mean declining nouns, but inflecting them. English has only two noun declensions: the unmarked form sometimes called nominative, and the possessive or genitive case. Pronouns have a few more. The point is that declension is about case. –  tchrist Jun 7 '12 at 19:18
@tchrist, since we're already fighting about definitions: Some would argue that English nouns don't have a genitive form since 's is a clitic, i.e. it works on the phrase level, not the lexical level. It's "The queen of England's mother", not "The queen's of England mother". –  dainichi Aug 9 '12 at 15:07

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The best rule is to ignore the language that the newly borrowed word came from and to use the same basic English rules for all inflexions, as though it were fully naturalized.

The truth is that it depends in part on how well assimilated the word is into English, and what the tradition is in the particular domain where that word is being used. Sometimes more than one version of a plural inflexion exists, such as both the English indexes and the Latin indices for the noun index, where mathematics tends to use the more conservative form.

Greek and Latin loanwords often conserve their classical plurals, which is why we have species and series as both a singular and a plural, not to mention words like genus/genera, antenna/antennae, vertebra/vertebrae, mare/maria, thesis/theses, crisis/crises, emphasis/emphases, taxon/taxa, mythos/mythoi, dictum/dicta, paramecium/paramecia, phenomenon/phenomena, penis/penes, clitoris/clitorides, crysalis/crysalides, octopus/octopodes, fungus/fungi, nucleus/nuclei, radius/radii, criterion/criteria, matrix/matrices, cicatrix/cicatrices, larynx/larynges, stigma/stigmata — and many, many more. You also sometimes see special plurals from French like plateaux, châteaux, and tableaux, or from Italian like mafiosi, tempi, or paparazzi. Those don’t tend to last as long as the truly classical ones sometimes do.

It just depends on the field. For example, in computational linguistics the word corpus comes up all the time, meaning a body or collection of texts. In that domain, the expected form of the plural is the Latin one, so you have several corpora. However, we do not (to my knowledge) use the Latin genitives unless we are forming the species name of a particular taxon. So the possessive of the singular corpus is simply corpus’s in English instead of the Latin genitive singular corporis, and the plural possessive is corpora’s in English instead of the Latin genitive plural corporum. (Again, taxa are excepted, but those aren’t really English away; they’re “modern” Latin.)

The OED attests hundreds of different singular-to-plural irregulars for imports, but most of these don’t last long in English. It might have been bruschetta/bruschette and pannino/pannini right at the start, but those didn’t lost long, such now people look at you funny if you speak of “a graffito” in the singular, and it is not uncommon to get “double” plurals, like “two panninis”.

Just use English rules on loanwords’ plurals — unless you’re working with one that is expected to retain its irregular form. Those you should be able to find in dictionary.

And the plural of virus is viruses. Always. :)

share|improve this answer
"phenomenon/phenomenon?" –  Alex B. Jun 7 '12 at 20:09

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.