The idiom "the die is cast" is well known. The simple past tense version of this in the indicative mood should be, "the die was cast." In the novel, The Godless, by Ben Peek, I came across the sentence, "He knew there was something wrong with this, a gut-level reaction, but he knew that the die were cast now." Unless I am missing something, this sentence is in the indicative mood.

I then did an online search and found several books that used "the die were cast" in the indicative mood, so this doesn't appear to be a typo. Examples included Colombia and the United States: Hegemony and Interdependence, by Stephen J. Randall; Perspectives on the Nuremberg Trial by Guénaël Mettraux; A Stubble-Jumper in Striped Pants: Memoirs of a Prairie Diplomat, by Earl G. Drake; Writing History in Renaissance Italy, by Gary Ianziti; etc. I understand "the die were cast" is correct if it’s being used in the subjunctive mood in a clause like, "if the die were cast," or, “as though the die were cast,” but that is not the case in any of the cited examples.

My question: Is the use of "the die were cast" in the indicative mood an idiom, or a regionalism? If it is, does anyone know its etymology in the specific form of "the die were cast" when being used in the indicative mood (I am interested in knowing how a singular noun came to be the subject of a plural verb)?

  • 2
    The original Latin, attributed to Julius Caesar, is Alea iacta est. Enjoy the Wiki article on the subject.
    – Ricky
    Jan 23, 2016 at 22:20
  • 5
    It's probably a misconceived usage, confusedly assuming that 'die' serves as an invariant plural (whereas in fact 'dice' is now accepted as both plural and singular). Jan 23, 2016 at 22:50
  • I note that in English GCSE maths papers (aimed at age 16, and all levels of abiltiy) the word "dice" is used in the singular and plural, whereas in A-level, (age 18, and selective) it is "die" in the singular.
    – James K
    Jan 24, 2016 at 9:02
  • @EdwinAshworth Be duly apprised that dice is never acceptable as a singular cisatlantically; that practice seems to be a peculiarly insular variation.
    – tchrist
    Jan 24, 2016 at 12:12
  • @tchrist You'd better duly apprise M-W. Jan 25, 2016 at 9:24

5 Answers 5


Die is often, in my experience, assumed to be the plural form of dice (e.g. the OP example, the die were cast. Presumably this usage occurs by association with other anglicised latin-root words (octopus/octopi, alumnus/alumni ...)

In fact, die is the singular form of dice although (confusingly) the form dice (used as both pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die. OED link, paywalled

  • 1
    Better not to link to the OED, since many users do not have subscriptions. But +1 for the first paragraph. Jan 23, 2016 at 23:23
  • 2
    @TimLymington - Thanks. I do realise not everyone can see the OED, but it is what I use...?
    – Dan
    Jan 23, 2016 at 23:27
  • 10
    @Dan - Are you answering for yourself or for other people? Jan 24, 2016 at 1:14
  • 4
    "Die is often assumed to be the plural form of dice"?! I think my inner grammar freak just died of rage. DICE IS THE PLURAL OF DIE!! Jan 24, 2016 at 13:49
  • 2
    @Dan Mock rage, I hasten to add :-) People using "dice" as the singular form is a pet peeve of mine; the double error of thinking "die" is plural AND "dice" is singular is even worse, and I'd never heard it before. Jan 24, 2016 at 22:39
  • The form “the die is cast” is from the Latin iacta alea est, a grammatically incorrect translation by Suetonius, 121 CE, of the Ancient Greek phrase of Menander "Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος ‎(Anerrhíphthō kúbos)", which Caesar quoted in Greek (not Latin). The Greek translates rather as “let the die be cast!”, or “Let the game be ventured!” (Wiktionary)

  • It would appear as though the Die referred to, was the singular form of a pair of Dice. In other words one the die had been thrown (cast), the result could not be changed, as in a gamble.

The first usage instance of this saying in English dates back to 1634:

The die has been cast:

An irrevocable choice has been made.


  • This expression has nothing to do with the modern-day process of die-casting of metal - the die here is the singular of dice. Julius Caesar is supposed to have spoken this phrase when crossing the Rubicon. Such stories are difficult to verify at this long remove and, of course, Caesar wouldn't have uttered the expression in English.

  • The earliest English version of the phrase doesn't refer back to Roman history, so we have to take the above story with a pinch of salt.

  • The earliest citation of the phrase that I can find is in Sir Thomas Herbert, A relation of some yeares travaile begunne anno 1626, into Afrique and the greater Asia, 1634:

    • "Aiijb, Is the die cast, must At this one throw all thou hast gaind be lost?"

(The Phrase Finder)

  • Well I'll be. I thought this was close to "set in stone" in terms of die-casting being permanent. Guess not.
    – stevesliva
    Jan 23, 2016 at 22:55
  • @stevesliva - there is also this interpretation, but the 'Caeser" one is the more common: " Later references refer to once molten metal is poured (cast) into a mould (die) the form cannot be changed, which is a practical explanation. As with most of these old sayings there are different opinions as to which one was the correct one." grahams-random-ramblings.blogspot.it/2007/10/…
    – user66974
    Jan 23, 2016 at 22:58
  • 4
    This doesn't really address OP's question about using die as a plural form.
    – Jim
    Jan 23, 2016 at 23:19
  • 4
    @Josh61- Sorry, maybe I'm thick. I get that die is supposed to be singular and so does OP. The question is why is it ok to say, "the die are cast" instead of, "the die is cast". You show usages of, "the die is cast" just as we all expect.
    – Jim
    Jan 23, 2016 at 23:29
  • 4
    @Josh61- I agree, and OP's first thought is that he agrees as well, but how does one explain the multiple usages in the OP's cited examples? Are we to say that they are all "just ignorant morons that don't know that die is singular?" (and neither do their editors?)
    – Jim
    Jan 23, 2016 at 23:35

Assuming the grammar is correct in the phrase "the die were cast," then the issue is not with the origin of the idiom in Greek, Latin or English, nor with the pluralism of the singular die, nor with the singularism of the plural dice, but rather instead rests with understanding the unfamiliar feeling of the tense placement of the word were in the idiom.

Past Subjuntive

Were is correctly used not only as the plural past ("they were") and second person singular past ("you were"), of BE, but in the case of the idiom in question (and though highlighted and discarded by OP for some cases, it must be so if correct) it is also used for the subjunctive past. If the grammar is correct, then the only option is that the idiom "the die were cast" is using were as subjunctive past.

The past subjunctive has the same form as the past simple tense except in the case of the verb BE. Though traditionally, the past subjunctive form of BE is were for all persons, including the first person singular and third person singular, the English subjunctive is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts.

The tense that is thus indicative is that even though "the die is cast," if unaware of the result of a cast die, the utilization of the subjunctive past of BE conjugates as "the die were cast." Simply, were is used to denote subjunctive past mood rather than read incorrectly as a pluralizing of "die."

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

  • But, since there is no plausible interpretation for the "past subjunctive" here ,this is irrelevant, and the given phrase stands as an error.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 24, 2016 at 12:40
  • 1
    @Colin Fine - I have already given the only possible interpretation in my answer: the English subjunctive is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts, and though "the die is cast," if unaware of the result of a cast die, the utilization of the subjunctive past of BE conjugates as "the die were cast." The interpretation is exactly this. If we assume the grammar is correct, then the past subjunctive form of BE is the only option available that allows the grammar to be correct.
    – chillin
    Jan 24, 2016 at 23:38
  • But what does it supposedly mean? I see an abstract description of the grammar of this supposed form, but no interpretation, in the sense of a statement of what it means.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 25, 2016 at 0:09
  • 1
    @ColinFine The meaning of the idiom is identical to what it always is, i.e. "past the point of no return," however because subjunctive past of BE is used, we can surmise the exact fate is still hidden or unknown. For example, had Caesar spoke English and literally uttered "the die were cast," the meaning is "we can't go back now, only forward to whatever unknown fate awaits, win or lose." The meaning of the idiom has not changed. Compare this to: "we can't go back, only forward to our inevitable victory."
    – chillin
    Jan 25, 2016 at 0:39
  • 1
    The Wikipedia article does not contain a single example of the past subjunctive in a declarative sentence. Unsurprisingly, because that is not part of English grammar.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 26, 2016 at 0:02

The noun dice (plural) has become difficult. I checked some dictionaries, Oald, Collins, Macmillan, and you get different answers as to singular and plural and American usage.

No wonder that various authors handle dice differently. I remember having read in an older Oald that dice (plural) has no singular and that one has to say "one of the dice" as singular form.

That is unpractical and one may assume that speakers tend to change the system.

Added: I think Wikipedia is the only one that gives clear information as to the various forms. Singular: die or dice, plural: dice, occasionally dices.


  • Why not post the links to these dictionaries that state that dice can be either singular or plural and how it is different in AmEng. American Users on EL&U seem to be more fervent about this divisione, but after all they are users who care about the language and I would not consider them representative of your average American citizen.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 24, 2016 at 22:49

It would seem right to say "The die is cast" or the "The dies are/were cast" but it's also possible to use "die" in the same way as "sheep" so your quote may be proper use (but old?), maybe an Australian thing, or a typo.

It's quite possible to imaging metalworkers getting bored and using their tools for games, with cubes winning out due to ease of use and outcome variability ( vs other methods). With "dice" coming from a slang use of "dies" being integrated into another language, probably post conquest given the recorded history of the word, so I tend to think the modern use of "dice" has become standalone and acceptable, with there being no singular because the people who adopted the "dice" word from seeing chance games involving multiple "dies".

so it's both?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.