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My wife always gives me a hard time when I say scissors; she insists the only correct way to refer to that cutting device is "pair of scissors". Is "pair of scissors" more correct than "scissors"?

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There was recently a question about pants, and as it happens, "pants" and "scissors" are both made fun of in Allan Sherman's song "One Hippopotami", so again I will recommend that people listen to it :) Here is a youtube link. –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 21 '10 at 17:47
    
She corrected me last night; apparently I say "a scissors". Should I modify this question, or ask a new one? –  antony.trupe Dec 22 '10 at 16:10
    
I'd say "a scissors" vs. "scissors" is a different questions than "pair of scissors" vs. "scissors". –  Marthaª Dec 23 '10 at 23:50
    
"Pair of scissors" and "the scissors" are both fine. "A scissors" is the phrase that bothers me. I have heard many teachers say this. –  user49370 Aug 8 '13 at 16:44
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3 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Both scissors and pair of scissors are correct; one is not more correct than the other. The context will usually determine where pair can be left out, and indeed, most simply leave it out where possible. Consider the following examples:

  • Darling, where are the scissors?
  • I can't find the scissors!
  • Who took the scissors?

In the above examples, one would rarely find pair used in those contexts. It is also colloquial to use some to refer to just one pair:

  • You need some scissors to do a perfect job.
  • I want some new scissors.

The above forms should not be used in formal situations. Thus:

  • You need a pair of scissors to do a perfect job.
  • I want a new pair of scissors.

In some situations, pair comes in handy:

  • I lost the scissors. We need to get a new pair.

  • Can't find your scissors? Want a new pair?

If one does not want to use pair, then one can also use ones:

  • I lost the scissors. We need to get new ones.

  • Can't find your scissors? Want new ones?

Similar "pair" words follow the same pattern. These are some common examples, not an exhaustive list:


Workshop/Gardening/Household tools:

  • calipers/callipers (Mostly caliper these days!)
  • clippers (Also clipper)
  • compasses (Although, increasingly, this is now simply called compass!!)
  • forceps
  • pliers
  • secateurs
  • shears
  • tongs

Optical instruments/devices:

  • binoculars
  • glasses/spectacles
  • goggles

Clothing worn below the waist:

  • breeches
  • leggings
  • long johns
  • jeans
  • jodhpurs
  • pants/trousers (including all varieties, such as khakis, and the like)
  • shorts
  • tights
  • trunks
  • underpants/pants

Singular items (mostly worn) that usually come in pairs:

  • chopsticks
  • earrings
  • gloves
  • sandals
  • shoes (and all footwear types)
  • socks
  • stockings

One word that I do not think "pair" is ever used with, even though they come in pairs:

  • buttocks
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what about "a scissors"? –  antony.trupe Dec 22 '10 at 16:10
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@antony.trupe: Scissors is a plural noun; thus "a scissors" would be wrong. To refer indefinitely to one unit, one should always use pair, as in "a pair of scissors". Further examples of correct usage when counting: one pair of scissors, two pairs [of scissors], several pairs, many pairs, a thousand pairs. With the definite article the and the plural adjectives these and those, pair does not have to be used: those scissors are terrible, try these scissors, the scissors are bad, etc. –  Jimi Oke Dec 22 '10 at 18:56
    
In the realm of cutting tools, "shears" and "clippers" follow the same mould as "scissors". –  user730 Dec 23 '10 at 7:44
    
@J. M.: True. Thought of actually classifying along the lines of "cutting tools", "optical devices", etc... but too lazy! Will add your suggestions in about four hours! –  Jimi Oke Dec 23 '10 at 18:18
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Does she also complain that your pair of shoes don't match your pair of pants? Or that your pair of socks need to be darned?

Just as we needn't refer to the above using pair of, there's nothing wrong with referring to a pair of scissors as simply scissors.

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what about "a scissors"? –  antony.trupe Dec 22 '10 at 16:10
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The "pair of" construction is useful when trying to refer to multiple scissors. "Pairs of scissors" is much more elegant than "many scissors," "those two scissors," etc.

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"Many scissors" and "those two scissors" are not inelegant – they're incorrect, since "scissors" is not countable. –  Brian Nixon Dec 21 '10 at 19:46
    
Lots and lots of scissors! –  MT_Head Aug 8 '13 at 16:47
    
(and yes - I'm aware that lots of is one of those phrases whose meaning has mutated. A "lot" of something originally meant - and still does mean, though it's no longer primary - a specified purchase or manufacturing quantity: "available in lots of 20", for example. Note to self: find out when its primary meaning changed to the current "synonym for many"...) –  MT_Head Aug 8 '13 at 16:51
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