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There were things his grandchildren, in turn, should know. Yet he hesitated. How do you tell your children they are progenies of the self-proclaimed inventor of Manhattan clam chowder? (The New York Times)

Oxford Dictionaries say "progeny" is a noun treated as singular or plural, but on Internet I found a number of occurrences of "progenies" and, hence, a doubt arose to my mind: is it entirely wrong pluralize "progeny"?

  • "they are progeny" vs "they are progenies" - the latter garners more hits on Ngram than the former, although both are very thin. It appears that when the focus is on the progeny and not the progenitor, progenies tends to be used. "However, the Sinhalese dispute it and think that they are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and they are progenies of a North lndian King Vijaya, who had migrated to Ceylon about 2500 years ago."link – Phil Sweet Apr 27 at 14:15
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I agree that your citation sounds strange; at least, it does to my ear. Reading that I almost wonder whether the author hasn’t somehow conflated progeny and prodigy, since the latter’s plural form is unremarkable.

However, digging deeper, one finds that the OED entry for progeny, last updated in 2007, makes no mention one way or the other. It gives as its sense 1a

1a. Offspring, issue, children; descendants. Occas.: a child, a descendant; a family.

a definition that is already in the plural, but which admits a singular sense “occasionally”. Sense 1b is more figurative:

1b. fig. Spiritual, intellectual, or artistic descendants; successors; followers, disciples.

And is still plural, and gives this citation of progeny itself taking plural concordance:

  • 1994 H. Bloom Western Canon ii. iii. 80
    Dante’s progeny among the writers are his true canonizers.

However, down under sense 1d:

1d. The product of the breeding of animals or plants; the offspring of sexual or asexual reproduction. Now chiefly Agric. and Genetics.

We find that there is indeed an inflected plural version — progenies — given as an example:

  • 1977 Crop Sci. 17 909/2
    Twenty-one clones whose polycross progenies ranked high for rate of seedling emergence under field conditions or had high forage yield..were selected for this study.

So it appears that when dealing with people, progeny is taken as a plural with some use as a singular, but when used in a genetic sense, it can occasionally be taken as a count noun that inflects regularly.

  • Surely the point is that a person (or plant) has progeny (not a progeny) no matter how many children that may be, and only geneticists would have occasion to consider a possible plural. I would say that is borderline jargon; it is certainly not the NYT usage. – TimLymington Apr 20 '13 at 21:49
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    @TimLymington You may be right. The NYT usage sound really wrong to me. – tchrist Apr 20 '13 at 21:51
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    I'm up for this one. But I think the short answer is just that progeny functions much the same as offspring (or indeed, fish). Grammatically there's no reason why they shouldn't be pluralised in the normal way - but since the "singular" forms are well-established as valid plurals anyway, there's no need to. So for the most part, we just don't. – FumbleFingers Apr 20 '13 at 21:51
  • @FumbleFingers The only OED citation that uses a progeny with a leading indefinite article like that is from before 1439, so can hardly represent modern usage in support of the word as a count noun. It came to us by way of Anglo-Norman and Middle French progenie without an -s, but that in turn derived from Latin prōgeniēs which had one and where -iēs was just the suffix for forming agent nouns, not a plural. There is some confusion in English about the number of -ies nouns (series, species, but in specie from the ablative), so it’s probably just as well we lost that -s. – tchrist Apr 20 '13 at 21:56
  • @FumbleFingers The OED example from 1947 seems to settle it for me. If Adam's "progeny" is not pluralised, then it can only be a non-count noun. 1947 M. E. Boylan This Tremendous Lover (new ed.) ii. 15 If Adam had not sinned, original sin would not have been transmitted to his progeny. – WS2 Apr 27 at 9:32
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Dictionaries differ in the plural of progeny. Most list progeny as a plural, although Merriam-Webster does not. All list progenies as a plural, although Oxford and Random House use this form only for animals and plants, not children.

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    OED does not recognize progenies at all, and neither would I. – TimLymington Apr 20 '13 at 21:35
  • I suspect that progenies is an American usage. I noted the Oxford exception to "all," thanks for pointing it out. – Bradd Szonye Apr 20 '13 at 21:38
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    @TimLymington But the OED actually has a citation that uses progenies, as I show in my answer. Still, it is very bizarre. – tchrist Apr 20 '13 at 21:41
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    @tchrist Yes, good catch. I refined my edit to reflect it. Progenies sounds wrong to me too, so I'm not sure whether it's actually legit American English, or whether the other American dictionaries are just being sloppy about usage notes. If you can resolve that, your excellent answer will totally supersede mine, and I'll delete this one. (And it's not all that unusual to make language distinctions between husbandry and children; some people distinguish between raise for husbandry and rear for children.) – Bradd Szonye Apr 20 '13 at 21:48
  • It does not sound legit to my ear, either. So either the NYT is become the domain of jargony geneticists, or it’s lost its editors. Or both. – tchrist Apr 20 '13 at 22:04
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The meaning of the word 'progeny' is children which is a plural word hence it is a plural word and can be used with both singular and plural verbs according to the sense it makes in the sentence.

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