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When you talk about "shrimp" in the plural, there's no "s." However, how can you explain it grammatically?

closed as off-topic by JSBձոգչ, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Brian Hooper, user49727, Bravo Oct 16 '13 at 9:34

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  • It's not fair to close-vote this as it's a genuine question -- what is the answer? Is there an answer, for that matter? – Kris Oct 16 '13 at 7:07
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    kih, a good question can suffer if the asker does not show adequate background effort. Have you tried to find an answer before asking? What happened? What did you/ didn't you find? What do you think could be a possible 'grammatical explanation'? – Kris Oct 16 '13 at 7:08
  • Another example: series is both singular and plural. – Evgeni Nabokov Oct 16 '13 at 8:40
  • There are at least two questions hidden here. (1) Does the noun shrimp have two plural forms, shrimp as well as shrimps ? (2) Why do we say '... shrimp is off the menu' rather than 'a shrimp is off the menu' – and is 'shrimps are off the menu' acceptable? And probably (3) Can you explain the answer to (1), and (4) 'are (2) and (3) connected? – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 9:20
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    @EdwinAshworth - If you moved those from your comment into edits into the question, I'd vote to reopen. – J.R. Oct 16 '13 at 10:59
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Some words may be either singular, plural, or uncountable, depending on how they are used in a particular context. That's just the way it is. There's really no grammatical explanation to it, although for some words, there may be historical explanations behind how their plurals are formed.

I should note, however, that "shrimp" is actually one of those words where the plural form may be "shrimp" or "shrimps", depending on the speaker's dialect.

shrimp (countable and uncountable, plural shrimp or shrimps)

—source: Wiktionary

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    So, where is the 'reason'? – Kris Oct 16 '13 at 7:06
  • @Kris That's like asking 'Well, is the answer to (6 + 7) 10 or 11?' after the person addressed has just said 'Neither'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 7:09
  • There is a related article on alga/algae at the “Blue-green algae is/are present in the lake”? thread . – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 7:16
  • I say shrimps, but sheep – mplungjan Oct 16 '13 at 8:06
  • As an AmE Midland speaker, the only time I've ever heard "shrimps" was in reference to multipe short people. – T.E.D. Oct 16 '13 at 21:36
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In English we have mass nouns such as wood or rice. You cannot count a mass noun by putting a number in front of it (two books) or pluralize it by adding an -s (lamps). To indicate quantity you write the unit of measure in front of the mass noun. For example, you would write "two cords of wood" or "ten feet of wood" or "two pounds of rice".

It seems the grammatical reasons for this are obscure. I've read several explanations of how it is but none that explicity give the reason why it is so. I found the following online at grammar.about.com:

Is there a conceptual basis to the grammatical distinction between count nouns and mass nouns? One answer is that this grammatical distinction is, to a very large degree, semantically opaque and unprincipled . . .. In general, people learn which nouns are typically used as count nouns and which are typically used as mass nouns without any understanding of why these differences in syntax occur. Another answer is that the grammatical distinction between count and mass nouns is to a very large degree conceptually based. That is, when speakers use count nouns to refer to things they implicitly have something in mind that they are trying to communicate that is common across all uses of count nouns. A similar view applies to the use of mass nouns. A third answer, and the one that I propose, is that the count-mass noun distinction is to a very large degree conceptually based, but there are exceptions. Some exceptions do not seem to have a clear explanation, but others may occur because of competing communicative functions of language.

Here's Wikipedia's take:

In English (and in many other languages), there is a tendency for nouns referring to liquids (water, juice), powders (sugar, sand), or substances (metal, wood) to be used in mass syntax, and for nouns referring to objects or people to be count nouns. This is not a hard-and-fast rule; however, mass nouns such as furniture and cutlery, which represent more easily quantified objects, show that the mass/count distinction should be thought of as a property of the terms themselves, rather than as a property of their referents. For example, the same set of chairs can be referred to as "seven chairs" and as "furniture"; although both chair and furniture are referring to the same thing, the former is a count noun and the latter a mass noun. The Middle English mass noun pease has become the count noun pea by morphological reanalysis.

For another illustration of the principle that the count/non-count distinction lies not in an object but rather in the expression that refers to it, consider the English words "fruit" and "vegetables". The objects that these words describe are, objectively speaking, similar (that is, they're all edible plant parts); yet the word "fruit" is (usually) non-count, whereas "vegetables" is a plural count form. One can see that the difference is in the language, not in the reality of the objects. Meanwhile, German has a general word for "vegetables" that, like English "fruit", is (usually) non-count: das Gemüse. British English has a slang word for "vegetables" that acts the same way: "veg" [rhymes with "edge"].

In languages that have a partitive case, the distinction is explicit and mandatory. For example, in Finnish, join vettä, "I drank (some) water", the word vesi, "water", is in the partitive case. The related sentence join veden, "I drank (the) water", using the accusative case instead, assumes that there was a specific countable portion of water that was completely drunk.

The work of logicians like Godehard Link and Manfred Krifka established that the mass/count distinction can be given a precise, mathematical definition in terms of quantization and cumulativity.

  • We've had a lot of this before, but +1 for bringing it all together. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 6:54
  • Two cords of wood, three pieces of furniture, four strands of hair, but two what of sheep? Three what of deer? Four what of fish? – Blessed Geek Oct 16 '13 at 8:23
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    @BlessedGeek: But those aren't uncountable: we say a sheep, two sheep, and sheep are. That's different from water: we don't say *a water *two water or *water are (except in the sense "a glass of water", which if a different (countable) sense of the word). – Cerberus Oct 16 '13 at 8:27
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    Exactly. So the reply should not correlate wood, or furniture or hair to sheep, or fish or deer. – Blessed Geek Oct 16 '13 at 8:30
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The reason?

When we talk about shrimp or fish in the singular but the referent is multiple, we are referring to it as a material in which the individuals are not visible or important. This is the same way that we talk about paper or meat, and as there is only one material it is singular. This is often the case where the thing being referred to is useful to us in some way. Food or drink for example.

An example of this is that we talk of a castle being built of stone, because we are not interested in the the individual stones, but would talk about a wheelbarrow full of stones being taken to the castle.

It is not clear cut though. Some people will talk about a herd of elephant, others a herd of elephants, and we have a flock of sheep but a herd of cows. One explanation for this is that sheep tend to run around in one mass in which the individuals are lost (the same as fish or shrimp) while cows spread out as individuals, but that would not explain the herd of elephant.

  • I know of some people who would (quite rightly) point out that this does not answer the OP's question. It does not give a 'grammatical' reason (as p.s.w.g. and ZZMike can be deduced to point out). However, I'm upvoting it because I think it addresses the 'question behind the question' better than those answers – I'd appreciate it if the favour was returned in future (the stance – the upvoting is far less important). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 7:05
  • In what way is "we are referring to it as a material in which the individuals are not visible or important [..] as there is only one material it is singular." and "One explanation for this is that sheep tend to run around in one mass in which the individuals are lost (the same as fish or shrimp) while cows spread out as individuals" not a grammatical reason? – Roaring Fish Oct 16 '13 at 7:12
  • For the same reason that 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously' is not ungrammatical. Grammar looks purely at the acceptability (often disputed) of sentence etc structure, not at whether the actual resulting string then makes sense, nor at how various accepted structures relate (or otherwise) to the details of the situation being described. I'd agree that semantics and syntax are too often kept too far apart. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 7:27
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    As for 'stance'... I think the question asked should be answered. What is the problem with that? As most askers - and answerers -are not linguists I also resist the temptation to use it as an excuse to show off my linguistic training. Where background would be useful, fine, but even then I try to keep it simple. Use Ngram instead of COCA; avoid links or references to obscure research papers; avoid obscure technical terms if possible. That kind of thing. – Roaring Fish Oct 16 '13 at 7:28
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    Whether 'colourless green ideas sleep furiously' is grammatical is arguable. Perhaps you meant to say syntactically correct, but as it fails semantically the grammaticality depends on how you define grammar. Chomsky, by the way, used the sentence as an example of one that had never been spoken - not one that is 'grammatically correct' but nonsense - so you are kind of missing the point there. And where, in my post, is there anything resembling that? – Roaring Fish Oct 16 '13 at 7:36
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There is also "fish" (singular) and "fish" (plural); "deer" and "deer". I agree with p.s.w.g. that there is no grammatical explanation, but rather one of how word plurals are formed.

To make things even more complicated, the plural is also "fishes". In U.S. English, it's "one fish, many fish".

  • No it's not. fish n. pl. fish or fish·es (AHD). I'll accept their take, as they claim to have surveyed usage. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 17 '13 at 8:07
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The most common plural form of "shrimp" happens to be the same as the singular. Just like the singular and plural forms of "you", "sheep", "samurai", and many other words.