Why is "30 head" singular instead of plural in this sentence? Can you explain more about it?

  • Extremely related and possibly counting as a duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/questions/119843/… – Andrew Leach Nov 17 '13 at 11:45
  • Please use capital letters and spaces between words in your question. This is an English language site after all. – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 '13 at 11:48
  • @Andrew: I don't think it's a duplicate. The duplicate would explain that people also say "five dozen" instead of "five dozens", "four score" instead of "four scores", and used to say "three pair" instead of "three pairs". I think there's a question like that, but I can't find it. Tangentially related Google Ngram. – Peter Shor Nov 17 '13 at 12:15
  • @PeterShor Perhaps it's this one then. But head refers to a single animal; using a different word like unit doesn't work the same way. Perhaps this question is the root question that the other one will be a duplicate of. – Andrew Leach Nov 17 '13 at 12:33
  • 1
    “30 head” isn't singular, it's plural. Perhaps you mean to ask why there's no s after head – James Waldby - jwpat7 Nov 17 '13 at 17:21

Dave Phillips says: In BrE we would always say a head of cattle (meaning the whole herd) but we wouldn't give a number of those head/heads.

While I would concede that the usage "X head" is not unknown here, the use of 'head' as a synonym of the collective noun 'herd' is probably more common in the UK.


Because 'cattle' is a plural noun with no singular (though it almost grades into a mass noun notionally in constructions such as 'raising cattle costs a lot of money' – cf clothing, furniture, and especially poultry – which, however, take singular concord), there is the problem of what to call a single – er, beast. Neat. The very familiar cow doesn't always work. Perhaps because of the notional massness of cattle, we don't say 'three cattle' etc either – it doesn't accept all normal quantifiers.

This is probably one reason why the term 'head of cattle' has been drafted into use. 'x head of' is then a compound quantifier usable with 'cattle'; the variant 'a single head of cattle' is also available.

Though this is a strange construction even for a quantifier, other more familiar quantifiers are known to take zero plurals (30 dozen ...).

  • 3
    'Ten head of cattle' means a heard of ten animals, but 'Ten heads of cattle' would mean ten (severed) heads. – Mario Elocio Nov 17 '13 at 21:15

Why don't you check your dictionary.

For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says the plural form for this definition is "head".

head noun meaning #4b http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/head

  • 1
    But note that it's "thirty head of cattle" but "thirty heads of lettuce". – Peter Shor Nov 17 '13 at 12:13
  • 1
    Maybe you need check in a dictionary too. 30 head of cattle is grammatical. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cattle – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 '13 at 12:21
  • 1
    But this metonymic usage in the dictionary link given offers no explanation of why it is never used in the singular (one head of cattle???) and always with an unusual plural form. Which is what OP is asking for. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '13 at 15:23
  • 1
    @Edwin: If you only have one head of cattle, you can always call it a "cow", a "steer", a "bull", or a "calf". – Peter Shor Nov 17 '13 at 20:39
  • @Peter: If YOU want to get that close ... The genderless 'neat' has been used, but doesn't seem very idiomatic. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 18 '13 at 11:21

Both heads and head are correct. It's simply more common to say head. Look up the term Isogloss as it explains this a bit more.

  • 1
    Why would the term ‘isogloss’ explain this? What does this have to do with isoglosses in any possible way? I for one have never heard of this as any kind of dialectal distinguisher. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 17 '13 at 14:07
  • Why do you say "thirty heads of cattle" is grammatical? Do you have a justification for this? – Peter Shor Nov 17 '13 at 14:45
  • Thirty head of cattle will have thirty heads. One hopes. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '13 at 15:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy