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We wear a shirt, a jacket but a pair of pants.

Why is pants plural?

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5  
Well, a "pant" would only be good for one leg... just like a "short", a "trouser"... –  user730 Dec 21 '10 at 9:36
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@J. M.: A shirt also has two arms, but we don't call it a "shirts". The question is why "pants", "shorts", "trousers", "knickers" etc. are plural, even though each of them is just an ordinary single piece of clothing. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 21 '10 at 10:11
    
Perhaps the question should be whether all nouns that end in 's' are always plural in some form. –  Joost Schuur Dec 21 '10 at 11:27
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+1 for inadvertently hilarious title –  Claudiu Dec 21 '10 at 16:04
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@Claudiu: hilarious, but I doubt it was inadvertent! –  PLL Dec 21 '10 at 21:57

5 Answers 5

up vote 73 down vote accepted

A quick search led me to the excellent site World Wide Words run by Michael Quinion

The site has an entire page on this issue. Here's a brief snippet.

Before the days of modern tailoring, such garments, whether underwear or outerwear, were indeed made in two parts, one for each leg. The pieces were put on each leg separately and then wrapped and tied or belted at the waist (just like cowboys’ chaps). The plural usage persisted out of habit even after the garments had become physically one piece. However, a shirt was a single piece of cloth, so it was always singular.

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Brilliant! Thanks. –  glenstorey Dec 22 '10 at 1:00
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Watch movies based in old England and you'll see examples of clothes where the sleeves and pants were separate and tied or fastened on. –  Greg Dec 22 '10 at 6:14

Apparently in the past they were two tube weakly linked, think to current tights. Hence the plural form.

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I think there is something about wearing a pair of pants or something like that. –  Eldroß Dec 21 '10 at 10:00
    
Yes but the question is, why a pair of pants is a single object? A pair of shoes is a couple of separate objects. –  Uberto Dec 21 '10 at 10:12
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What, no, a pair of shoes is singular just as a pair of pants is. Look at the pronouns you just used! If you're talking about whether the parts of the whole can be used separately, well, just cut a pair of pants in half and you have yourself a pant and a pant. –  SilverbackNet Dec 21 '10 at 22:01
    
not singular, single object as in one inseparable object... well mine for sure. ;) –  Uberto Dec 21 '10 at 22:33

I think it just like the "shoes". You cannot have one "shoe" as well as one "part" of the pants.

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Speak for yourself. I have both a left shoe and a right shoe. –  Eric Dec 21 '10 at 11:16
    
Just my thought, that normally, will you wear just one left (or right) shoe when you are going out? –  Ngoc Pham Dec 27 '10 at 8:30
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It depends. If he only needs one step to get the mail, he might only put on the shoe for the foot necessary for the task? –  Andrew J. Brehm Jan 16 '12 at 7:29
    
Captain Ahab begs to differ. –  Brian Donovan Jun 29 at 15:22

It's referring to the components that make up the whole. A pair of pants consists of two pants. Much like a pair of glasses (usually) has two pieces of glass.

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1  
But that doesn't explain why. Other languages manage perfectly well making them singular. –  Colin Fine Dec 22 '10 at 17:58
    
Colin: Swedish uses plural also, for pants (byxor), jeans and glasses (glasögon), the latter translates to glass-eyes. However, a pair of scissors is "sax", which is singular. –  Per Alexandersson Sep 3 at 8:36

It actually makes perfect sense. Think of these examples. "The clown wore a pair of pants where one pant was red and the other pant green". Also, "The amputee wore his pants with one pant tied up and the other pant covering his good leg". The proper use of the singular and plural is used to make the meaning clear. Or if you look at panties as a whole with two openings or two short upper leg coverings we use the plural, however, if we only refer to the single toursal opening we say "panty waist", especially when referring to a male who is less masculine or who acts cowardly. And by the way "sleeves" is upper body equivalent of pants. "The shirt has short sleeves". "He wore short sleeves". In both these examples we used sleeves as a noun. When we use it as an adjective of a singular noun, we use the singular, ". . . short-sleeve shirt".

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I would normally say one leg, not one pant. –  Bradd Szonye Oct 2 '13 at 1:08
    
Yes you can say one pant, one leg or one pant leg when you are referring to pants. –  Bob Benson Oct 2 '13 at 5:15
    
It's the proper use of singular and plural as set by at least 500 years of usage in modern English. –  Bob Benson Oct 2 '13 at 23:41
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It may be proper, but it's not used in practice. About 90% of the occurrences of “one pant” appear in the phrase “one pant leg,” and many of the rest have nothing to do with trousers. So while I wouldn't say this is wrong, it's definitely not typical usage. –  Bradd Szonye Oct 3 '13 at 0:34

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 26 '13 at 18:29

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