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There are some irregular plurals in English (child/children, goose/geese), but all of the ones I know of share the same root word.

In some languages, there are some irregular pairs where the singular form does not have the same root as the plural form, such as in Russian (год/лет, человек/люди).

Are there any such irregular plurals in English?

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In what sense would any such singular/plural pair be the same word if they didn't have the same derivation? Why can't I point to "God" and deities as a pair of different words that from my point of view are singular/plural designations of the same referent(s)? –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '12 at 21:07
The technical term for this is suppletion. Linked from that Wikipedia article you will find the corresponding Wiktionary category, one of whose subcategories is English nouns with suppletive plurals. –  RegDwigнt Jul 11 '12 at 21:07
@FumbleFingers Because the plural of god is gods. If one is counting gods, he is unlikely to say one god, two deities, whereas if he were counting people, there would be no such weirdness in saying one person, two people. –  Peter Olson Jul 11 '12 at 21:18
@FumbleFingers "In linguistics and etymology, suppletion is traditionally understood as the use of one word as the inflected form of another word when the two words are not cognate." I can't vouch for the truth of this; it's the lead-in of the Wikipedia article. –  MετάEd Jul 11 '12 at 22:18
@FumbleFingers, I disagree. The OP is clearly asking about suppletion, though he doesn't know what to call it, and as such the question is interesting an answerable. –  JSBձոգչ Jul 11 '12 at 23:18

6 Answers 6

Notwithstanding that I voted to close, I'm going to stick my neck out and say there are no "English nouns with suppletive plurals". With the possible exception of person/people per Wiktionary link.

But I would point out that both those are singular words in their own right, with regular plurals (persons/peoples). It just so happens that people is often used as a plural anyway (similar to one fish, two fish).

It's also worth noting that person can be used in contexts where people can't - for example, "He carries a pistol on his person", but not *"They carry pistols on their people". Correspondingly, "The good people of London welcome all to the Olympics", but not *"The good persons of London..."

Valid examples of suppletion in English consist of a few common verbs (to be - am, is, were, are) and adjectives (good - better, best). The phenomenon can only occur with common words, because with uncommon words the natural tendency of speakers to "regularise" inflections will triumph.

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+1 I am much inclined to agree. –  Daniel Jul 12 '12 at 0:08
The other common verb that is formed from two distinct older ones is to go, which once upon a time stole its past form, went, from to wend. Interestingly, the two most common verbs in other western languages than English that show this are again to be and to go. They also have irregular degrees of adjectives in the same places, going from bad to worse, so to speak. –  tchrist Jul 12 '12 at 0:13
@Daniel: I'm in two minds now as to whether I still endorse my original closevote. I personally don't consider am, is, were, are or go, went to be variants of "a word", so I guess I'm just stamping my foot a bit over the "wording" of the question. Disregarding person/people, I think with nouns the closest we have is things like cow/beef, pig/pork, sheep/mutton. The English peasants had their own "animal" words, but they ended up using the French equivalents solely for the cooked meat their Norman overlords demanded be served at table. –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '12 at 0:28
@tchrist: Yes, I'm sure you're right that other languages have this same phenomenon - and that the two ultra-common verbs to be and to go are always going to be likely candidates. Such irregularities can only survive when they're so common everyone knows the "correct" form. And if some peasant says "I be a peasant" - well, we know he's a peasant before he even gets the last word out, don't we! –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '12 at 0:34
Big +1 for going on the "Evidence of absence" argument. I believe you are correct, mainly in part because English nouns are particularly mutable, i.e., nouns that should have been or were traditionally irregular tend to morph into regular forms. –  nicholas Jul 12 '12 at 1:02

The following pairs have plurals with stems different from those of the singular forms:

Personal pronouns

I and we

he/she/it and they

Possessive pronouns

mine and ours

his/hers and theirs

Possessive determiners

my and our

his/her/its and their.

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I think person/people is as close (or far) as it gets.

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What was the link going to be? :) –  Daniel Jul 11 '12 at 21:05
@ Daniel, thanks. –  Tolerance72 Jul 11 '12 at 21:18
As @Malvolio points out that person-people is often quoted as a suppletive noun, it is not strictly so. Both are distinct nouns with distinct plurals - people just happens to be a collective or group noun. This is analogous to pig / swine and cow / cattle. –  nicholas Jul 12 '12 at 0:58
@nicholas: It isn't analogous because swine is not the standard plural for pig and cattle is not the standard plural for cow. But people is the standard plural for person. If you said "one car, two cars; one pig, two ..." most English speakers would say pigs, not swine. If you said "one person, two ..." most English speakers would say people, not persons. –  David Schwartz Jul 12 '12 at 8:21
@DavidSchwartz, I suppose you are right. Although person / people is historically analogous to pig / swine (cow / cattle is a different matter altogether), in modern usage it's meaning has changed. For consistent connotation, we have to say "3 people, 2 people, 1 person," because "1 people" means something different. The word "person" does not have this form of semantic switching - "3 persons, 2 persons, 1 person" is perfectly valid - but by convention, modern English speakers do not use it. –  nicholas Jul 12 '12 at 12:54

Cow has three plurals: cows (which comes from "cow"), cattle (from from Anglo-Norman catel, meaning "chattel"), and kine (which comes from ku, also the ancient root of "cow", so might not count).

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Cattle is not the plural of cow. Or at least, cow is not the singular of cattle. A cow is a calving female. There is no good English singular for cattle. –  Mark Beadles Jul 11 '12 at 23:11
@Mark How about beeve? –  ErikE Jul 12 '12 at 1:19
@MarkBeadles -- mmm, I see your point, but if you showed a native English speaker 100 cows and asked him what they are, he'd answer "cattle". I suppose "domestic bovine animal" is the most common thing that has no name in English. –  Malvolio Jul 12 '12 at 3:07


Both words have additional plurals as well.

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Surely the actual plural of "person" is "persons". As in the legal standard "by persons unknown". –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '12 at 21:03
As well, the plural of "people" is "peoples," as in "the people of Spain" vs. "the peoples of Europe." –  Andy Jul 11 '12 at 21:21
I don't agree with the distinction you make about the "actual" plural. There are different plurals used in different situations. In legal contexts one can find all sorts of uncommon constructions. And "people" has additional meanings. But if you ask a native speaker in normal circumstances, they will call one individual 'one person' and a pair of them 'two people'. –  Mark Beadles Jul 11 '12 at 23:06
@FumbleFingers: Try it. Say to someone, "One car, two cars. One person, two ..." I'm pretty sure you'll hear "people" a lot more than "persons". Though "persons" is not incorrect, it has been almost completely supplanted by "people" as the plural for "person". –  David Schwartz Jul 12 '12 at 23:47

It's not used very often nowadays, but there's cow and kine.

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Those appear to have the same derivation. –  WAF Jul 11 '12 at 20:55
Still the same root, though, like sow and swine. The plural is the same as in oxen and children, and the vowel change is ordinary umlaut, like mouse - mice. –  John Lawler Jul 11 '12 at 20:58
@WAF & John L.: Perhaps so; it was the closest second example I could offer, and seemed worthy of a mention at least. –  J.R. Jul 11 '12 at 20:58
Erm... etymonline says genitive plural of M.E. kye "cows," from O.E. cy (gen. cyna), plural of cu "cow." To me, that means they have "the same derivation". –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '12 at 0:50
I'm not 100% sure, but I believe "cow and kine" is the answer to a quirky trivia question: What is the only singular/plural word pair that share no common letters? (I realize this doesn't refute the fact that they share the same root, but thought it was interesting to note). –  J.R. Jul 12 '12 at 2:06

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