Many nouns that end in ‑f are made plural by changing the ‑f to ‑v‑ and adding ‑es.

| Singular |   Plural  |
|  half    |  halves   |
|  leaf    |  leaves   |
|  shelf   |  shelves  |

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But some nouns that end in ‑f are made plural simply by adding ‑s.

| Singular |   Plural  |
|  chief   |  chiefs   |
|  roof    |  roofs    |
|  cliff   |  cliffs   |

Some nouns that end in ‑f can be made plural in two ways, either by adding ‑s or ‑ves:

| Singular |      Plural        |
|  scarf   |  scarfs or scarves |
|  hoof    |  hoofs or hooves   |
|  dwarf   |  dwarfs or dwarves |
|  wharf   |  wharfs or wharves |

Now my question is how to determine whether to use only ‑s or to change the ‑f to ‑v‑ and add ‑es?

  • 8
    These are called 'irregular' plurals for a reason. Sadly, I'm not sure you will find any rule that can be applied to an unfamiliar case. – Stuart Allen Jun 20 '13 at 1:43
  • 1
    If you've studied German you know there is a lot of variation in Germanic noun plurals. English has lost most of it; but some remains. Notice also that this extends to other fricatives: /mauθ/ optionally becomes /mauðz/ in the plural (/mauθs/ also occurs). And the voicing occurs again in distinguishing the verb from the noun -- He mouths /mauðz/ the words; _He interleaves the pages, etc. – John Lawler Jun 20 '13 at 2:14
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    The plural dwarves is not universally endorsed for non-fictional persons ( grammarist.com/usage/dwarfs-dwarves ). – Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 '13 at 9:45
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    It should be noted also that homonymity of certain nouns with their verb counterparts can (and should) inform a preference in cases where there is coexistence of both the 's' and 'v' forms. It creates a useful distinction between the 3rd-person-singular-present form of the verb and the plural of the homonymic noun to have the verb (e.g. "scarfs [down food]") take the 's' alone and the noun should take the 'v' form (e.g. "scarves"). This has not caught on in all cases (not many would write "halfs" to refer to more than one half, for instance) but hopefully will still help you decide. – Tyler James Young Jun 26 '13 at 17:17

There isn't a rule to determine whether to pluralise -f singular nouns as -fs or -ves. It is a matter of custom. A good dictionary should indicate which forms are acceptable (one or both can be).

Apropos to this, Tolkien pluralised some -f singular nouns in unconventional ways. He pluralised "elf" as "elves", where "elfs" had been common, and pluralised "hoof" as "hoofs", where "hooves" is common. It was his style preference, though choosing the less common form may throw the reader.

  • 2
    Untrue. The plural of elf has always been elves (well, ever since singular ælf stopped becoming plural ælfe). It’s dwarves whose older-looking form he recalled, to make it seem equivalent in antiquity to elves. However, you are correct that he did use the form hoofs 30 times across The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, as compared with using the hooves form only 5 times across the same corpus. – tchrist Jul 1 '13 at 19:48
  • Regarding -f > -ves, J.R.R. Tolkien also notably pluralized turf as turves: “The oldest kind were, indeed, no more than built imitations of smials, thatched with dry grass or straw, or roofed with turves, and having walls somewhat bulged.” and “For after three days the Men of the Mark prepared the funeral of Théoden; and he was laid in a house of stone with his arms and many other fair things that he had possessed, and over him was raised a great mound, covered with green turves of grass and of white evermind.” and other examples besides. – tchrist Jul 1 '13 at 19:57

There are only a few words which you should pluralize by changing the f or fe to v and adding es. They are as follows:

Singular ending in f

  • beef to beeves (or beefs)
  • calf to calves
  • corf to corves
  • dwarf to dwarves (but only in Tolkein)
  • elf to elves
  • half to halves
  • hoof to hooves
  • leaf to leaves
  • loaf to loaves
  • ourself to ourselves
  • scarf to scarves (or scarfs)
  • self to selves
  • sheaf to sheaves
  • staff to staves or (staffs)
  • shelf to shelves
  • themself to themselves
  • thief to thieves
  • wharf to wharves (or wharfs)
  • wolf to wolves
  • yourself to yourselves

Singular ending in fe

  • knife to knives
  • life to lives
  • wife to wives

Also, Oaf to oaves appears to be an archaic form, with oafs being correct now. Ditto roof to rooves, with roofs being the current accepted plural form.

So, keep this list. You could probably even memorize them. By my count, that's only 21 words, and a few of those are generally uncommon.

You must also remember that if a compound word ends with one of the words that uses the ves ending to pluralize, the compound word will do the same. For example, knife changes to knives, so penknife will change to penknives, and wolf changes to wolves, so werewolf will change to werewolves. There is a list at en.wictionary.com which includes quite a few of these kinds of compounds.

To pluralize the other words ending in f or fe, simply add s.

  • Yes, themself and ourself are words. Them can be just as singular as you can be, and nobody says that yourself must be written yourselves when only one person is involved. A similar story can be told for ourself. – tchrist Jul 6 '13 at 13:25
  • You forgot life, corf, scarf, wharf; also sometimes staff, beef, and oaf. – tchrist Jul 6 '13 at 13:37
  • @tchirst Thanks for the additional words. I edited to add life, corf, scarf, wharf. I guess I should add the sometimes words as well. I'm a little confused by your self-selves info. You may be correct, but I'm not getting themself or ourself. Would you please give examples? As for yourselves when one person is involved, I don't suggest that, do I? – sarah Jul 7 '13 at 1:55
  • @tchrist So, I think I figured out about themself, as in, "Someone could finish that whole pizza themself if they wanted to." Yes? I'm still not seeing ourself. And I still don't get the yourself comment. Surely we'd say, "Do it yourself," if talking to one person and "Do it yourselves," if talking to two. or more. – sarah Jul 7 '13 at 2:45
  • 1
    The OED says of ourself: “Emphatic and reflexive pronoun, corresponding to we, us, originally not differing in sense from ourselves; but subsequently differentiated, so as to be used mostly in those cases in which we refers to a single person or is not definitely plural; e.g. in royal, divine, or editorial utterance, or when used vaguely in the sense of one, oneself.” – tchrist Jul 7 '13 at 3:13

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