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My dictionary defines the following:

yarn: thread that has been spun, used for knitting, weaving, etc.

I am unsure of the meaning of the plural form "yarns". To illustrate, I'll use two examples:

A. "He sold yarns of many colours---red, blue, and white."

B. "She found that five yarns corresponded to a width of one centimetre in the knitted fabric."

After consulting with people that speak English well, I get two different answers:

  1. "yarns" refers strictly to several different types of yarn, as the word is used in example A. However, "yarns" can not be used to refer to several threads of yarn as in example B. (This makes the "yarns" somewhat similar to the "peoples".)

  2. "yarns" may refer to both several different types of yarn and several threads of yarn. Both example A and B show correct usage of "yarns".

Which of these definitions of the plural form is correct? (Or maybe the answer is something different?) If "yarns" cannot be used to describe several threads of yarn (as in example B), then what should example B look like? Is the term "threads of yarn" ok?

The text I am writing is rather formal, so I would appreciate answers that are appropriate in a formal context.

2 Answers 2

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I believe explanation 1 is the better guide. When you're talking about the same yarn, you'd say "lengths of yarn", but if there were two different kinds of yarn in the same weave, you'd say "the two yarns are interwoven..."

Other examples of nouns that are pluralized only when different types or classes are being referenced: "I favour milder tobaccos", "they deal in plastics", "a large selection of fabrics".

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    Mass nouns can be countified by referring to varieties (5 yarns in the sweater), and count nouns can be massified by positing some characteristic they possess (a lot of car for the money). You have to fit it into context, but it's just another way to modify a noun. Mar 28, 2014 at 14:47
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'Yarns' or 'yarn' as the plural of 'yarn' is regional. As such, there are locales where the pluralising suffix -s is never used and the plural of 'yarn' is simply 'yarn'.

Examples: 'We carry a variety of yarn', 'What new yarn do you have?', 'I have so much yarn', and 'There are many kinds of yarn made from a variety of fibres'.

Where -s is not used, you would never encounter both examples A and B. Yarn, then, occurs as a kind of compound noun, paired with nouns like strand or skein, as in 'This is knit holding two strands of yarn*'.

*The construction 'strands of yarn' is identical to 'yarn strands', but for various reasons 'yarn strands' is not a natural construction.

In your case, I would suggest you use whichever you believe will be natural to the greater number of your intended readers. I would refer you to data denoting or mapping the regions where one or the other is most prevalent, if I knew of such data. If you find that you cannot decide which is likely to be considered natural to the greater number of your intended readers, my recommendation is to not use 'yarns', not only because it does not occur in my dialect, but because even where 'yarns' is prevalent, 'yarn' would not be considered unnatural. (ie. It wouldn't sound wrong.)

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  • So you've never been to a family dinner where several people have told yarns?
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 25, 2020 at 0:58
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    yarn (countable and uncountable, plural yarns)
    – CJ Dennis
    Mar 25, 2020 at 1:33

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