For example, what is the "s" in "apples" or the "ies" in "ponies" called? I found that "morpheme" is probably close, since that's just the smallest grammatical unit in a language, but that's not really identifying the pluralizing nature of the morpheme itself.

I've suggested "pluralizer" to a friend, but that kinda seems made up and I was wondering if there is an actual grammatical term.

  • With 'women', what exactly is the pluralizer, since it substitutes 'a' for 'e'?
    – smci
    Jul 28, 2017 at 10:14
  • @smci Women is an odd case. In writing, it substitutes ⟨a⟩ for ⟨e⟩ in the final syllable; in speech, it substitutes /ɪ/ for /ʊ/ in the first syllable. This is different from, say, fireman > firemen, where the plural marker is the umlaut of /a/ (here reduced to /ə/) to /ε/, but where this is reflected both in speech and in writing. Jul 28, 2017 at 10:17
  • For an even worse case look at person-->*people*. The fact that even the first letter is the same is coincidence. (I know we can have both persons and peoples but I refer to the common everyday use.)
    – Chris H
    Jul 28, 2017 at 14:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I know women is an odd (irregular) case, that's precisely why I pointed it out. (Let's just consider the written, not the spoken, form.) I was pointing out that in that particular case, the concept of a 'pluralizer' does not exist, at least not as a separate letter ('s') or set of letters ('es'). In those specific cases (also 'people') I suspect 'pluralizer' is not the right term ('plural form', perhaps?). I was asking if any of you actually know what is the correct term? I don't.
    – smci
    Aug 1, 2017 at 1:04
  • 1
    @smci The term pluraliser does still apply, it's just not as easy to separate the physical appearance of the pluraliser as separate from the stem. The pluraliser in women is orthographically the same as in men: a historical process of umlaut. In people, which is a completely suppletive plural, on the other hand, there really is no pluraliser apart from the process of suppletion. Aug 1, 2017 at 8:38

5 Answers 5


This is usually just called the "plural marker" or the "plural morpheme". In English it's usually "-s" though there are plenty of exceptions, and other languages of course have their own plural markers.

  • 1
    Makes sense to me. "Plural marker" sounds most appropriate. Something curious - in my tags for this post, I put "plural" but after submission it changed to "grammatical-number", which actually seems like an appropriate answer for my question. So my question answered itself, hah!
    – Colin Wood
    Jul 27, 2017 at 17:36
  • 2
    @ColinWood; "Grammatical Number" is the linguistic category to which the morpheme refers, but is not a proper label for the morpheme itself. Jul 27, 2017 at 17:37
  • Many languages have no "plural marker" at all. Either they have no concept of plural (like Chinese), or they inflect nouns internally (German Mann -> Männer) English still has some old remnants of its roots in other languages lying around: Brother -> Brethren, Mouse -> Mice. Jul 27, 2017 at 20:47
  • 3
    @Lee Chinese does have the concept of plurality, it’s just much more restricted than in languages like English. All pronouns and many regular nouns referring to humans can mark plurals overtly (mandatorily in the case of pronouns, optionally with regular nouns), such as 我 ‘I’ vs 我们 wǒmen ‘we’ or 朋友 péngyou ‘friend(s)’ vs 朋友们 péngyoumen ‘friends’. German Mann > Männer does have an overt marker: -er. It’s just that this overt marker causes umlaut on the preceding syllable. Sometimes umlaut is the marker (tooth > teeth), and sometimes there is none: sheep > sheep. Jul 28, 2017 at 10:14
  • @LeeDanielCrocker: And Arabic has its own fun ways of making plurals, e.g. the words for "doctor" and "bank" look familiar in the singular, but less so in the plural: "doctōr" -> "dacātira", "bank" -> "bunūk".
    – psmears
    Jul 28, 2017 at 11:51



Grammar. A suffix, prefix, inflection, or auxiliary word which forms a plural.

Your original suggestion to your friend is totally sufficient, as it turns out. It does feel slightly made up!


You may not be asking the question you think you are. Pluralizers always make something plural, and the examples you give -- apples, ponies -- do indeed make the words plural. But consider he goes/they go; the -es marks singular, but what marks go as plural?

There are different morphemes (the smallest chunks of sound-meaning correspondence, like un-, lock, and -able in unlockable, or book, keep, -er, and -s in bookkeepers) for nouns and verbs. As you can see, pluralizing verbs in English is a matter of a missing suffix, while singularizing them adds a suffix. And only in the present tense, note.

This is the opposite of the use with nouns -- the noun plural suffix inflectional morpheme {-Z₁} is added to the noun, which is otherwise singular. The third person singular present tense verb inflectional suffix {-Z₂}, however, gets added to the singular (he goes), and not to the plural (they go).

It's a nice little ironic feature of English morphology that, while there are only 9 inflectional suffixes left in English, three of them are completely identical in shape (which is why they all have the same morphophonemic shape -Z):

  • the noun plural inflection {-Z₁} (1 row, 2 rows)
  • the 3sgpres verb inflection {-Z₂} (They go, He goes)
  • the noun possessive suffix {-Z₃} (That's Joe, That's Joe's)

All the -Z's have the same allomorphs in the same distribution, like the famous 3 identical German personal pronouns sie 'she', sie 'they', and Sie 'you (pol)'. They're all pronounced Z /zi/, but they don't have the same syntax.

So, with regard to nouns, the final -Z (bats with /-s/ after voiceless, eggs with /-z/ after voiced, and churches with /-əz/ after sibilants) is indeed a pluralizer. But with respect to verbs, -Z isn't; it's a person/tense/number marker -- 3rd person, present tense, singular number -- whereas the noun suffix is just a number marker for plural.

Probly the best general term for the suffix on apples and ponies (both end in voiced sounds, /l/ and /i/, so they're both the /-z/ allomorph) is plural suffix. If you want to be formal, English Noun Plural Suffix.

  • 2
    I know some people consider /i/ and /j/ to be allophones of the same phoneme, but calling /i/ a voiced consonant seems more confusing than useful to me. Jul 28, 2017 at 10:21

This can also be called a "declension". A declension is an instance where the spelling or sound of a noun changes in order to give information about its number, gender, or grammatical case. While some languages have many noun cases (Russian, Finnish, and Estonian, for example), English has only two - singular and plural, so we rarely talk about them in terms like "declension" or "case".

In German, for example, which has four noun cases, the word "country" is "das Land", the word "the countries" would be "die Länder" and the phrase "in the countries" would be "in den Ländern". Each of these changes is a declension - first giving information about number, then about position.

While English doesn't have this level of grammatical complexity with nouns, the principle is still the same - a noun is changing its spelling and sound in order to convey more information about that object. Thus, a declension.


Any small linguistic element that modifies the meaning of a word is called a phoneme. The phoneme that makes a singular noun into a plural noun does not as far as I know have a particular name. If you invent one you might consider inventing a word to designate "ing" and ed". I doubt there is much use for any such word.

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