What's the difference in using the uncountable noun linen either in the plural or in the singular to refer to articles or garments, such as sheets, tablecloths, or underwear?

How did originally singular linen for "underwear/household textiles" come to take a plural form in the 1800s United States? Ngram


also linens Articles or garments, such as sheets, tablecloths, or underwear, formerly made of linen and now usually made of other fabrics, especially cotton. (AHD)

Often, linens. bedding, tablecloths, etc., made of linen cloth or a more common substitute, as cotton. (Random House)

The Free Dictionary

Linens are fabric household goods intended for daily use, such as bedding, tablecloths and towels. "Linens" may also refer to church linens, meaning the altar cloths used in church.


(also linens [plural]) ​sheets, ​tablecloths, etc. made from linen or a ​similar ​material: ​bed linen; ​table linen


(collective n.) (sheets, tablecloths etc.; often US linens) linge (de maison); (underwear) linge (de corps). dirty or soiled linen linge sale.

Source: Collins-Robert French and English Dictionary, Ed. 1985


  • 2
    Perhaps, linen refers to the fabric itself and linens refer to products/goods made from linen(used as raw material)? Just a guess based on a Google search for linen (namely the first two Wikipedia results)
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 11:54
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    There is no difference; some people say linen and some people say linens. It may be regional; I don't know. From this Ngram it appears that the plural is exclusively American and is a 20th century innovation. Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 12:22
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    I suspect that, as people came more disconnected from the origin of linen as a fiber from flax (and as, eg, "table linen" came to include fabrics of other materials), the word became associated with pieces of fabric vs fabrics of a specific nature, and hence pluralizing seemed more natural.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 14:10
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    It isn't unusual for nouns to shift from mass nouns to count nouns or vice versa. The most interesting example I know or is "cannon". It started out as a regular count noun. Then it turned into a mass noun. People said "two pieces of cannon". Then it turned back into a count noun with an unchanged plural: "two cannon". And it is now in the process of regaining a regular plural: "two cannons". Commented Jan 2, 2016 at 14:41
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    The two are identical except perhaps in certain cases (which would be clear from context). A good analogy is with fish and fishes - the latter refers to a set of fish that includes various species. So in the unlikely event a sentence or paragraph uses both linen and linens, the most natural reading (if the writer is known to be careful) is that multiple types of linen are meant by linens.
    – sacheie
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 22:24

5 Answers 5


Agreed, at least in the US, “linens” refers to multiple individual articles of linen-made items (tablecloths, sheets, napkins, etc.), while "linen” refers to the fabric itself.


I would have to endorse the comments of the previous respondent. In my experience (in England and Ireland), I only ever heard the form "linen" used to refer to a quantity of table linen, bed linen, etc. I don't believe I ever heard anyone use the word "linens." However, if I ever heard it, I would assume it referred to different types of linen. Are there different types of linen? I honestly don't know.


This is an interesting question and raises several issues. I am encouraged to recall my grandfather's words back in the last century, who told me that his step-father was a draper and chandler in 19th century London, and referred to "linen" as a description of the material of an article, but his "linens" were articles stacked on shop shelves as were "cottons", "gunnies" and "silks". I hope I recall his words correctly, but which may assist in some way to answer the question!


It's common in Australia too, at least in those educated before, say, the seventies and is used to describe the napkins, tablecloths and perhaps (?) less often, the bedsheets and pillowslips, regardless of the actual fabric. Would this count as a synecdoche, I wonder?


As a retired English teacher, I always taught that linen was an uncountable noun. It was often confusing for literature students who studied American texts where uncountable nouns were pluralised.

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