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Singularia tantum and pluralia tantum are, respectively, nouns that have only a singular form and nouns that have only a plural form.

In English, we have a handful of pluralia tantum that are mass nouns which take the plural form (e.g. "riches" and "remains"), a whole load of pluralia tantum that refer to things that come in pairs (e.g. "trousers", "sunglasses", "knickers", or "scissors"), and at least one plurale tantum that fits into neither of the above categories ("clothes", meaning multiple items of clothing - it's clear what the hypothetical singular "clothe" would mean, yet it mysteriously isn't a word). Singularia tantum, on the other hand, seem less varied. As far as I can tell, they are all mass nouns - things like "information", "milk", and "racism".

One can imagine there being a singulare tantum that is not a mass noun. For example, we can imagine an alternate universe in which it is still correct English to talk about "a dog", but talking about "dogs" in the plural is incorrect and funny in the same way that it is incorrect and funny to talk about a "scissor". It might seem unintuitive to think that such a noun even could exist - surely, if it is not a mass noun, then people would just pluralise it with an "s" on the end like most other words? But the converse argument could just as well be made about countable pluralia tantum, and I still cannot go to a shop and buy a "clothe". Hence my question: do we have any such countable singularia tantum in the language? Have we in the past?

  • I think you are right that all of the possible candidates actually do have plural forms. "Person", although commonly used alongside plural "people", does still have the plural form "persons" (and "people" could even be viewed as a kind of suppletive plural form); "Forceps" is much more common than either of its plural forms "forcepses" or "forcipes", but they do exist. – sumelic Aug 25 '17 at 22:34
  • 'Clothes' is a non-count noun. We've been here before. Etically countable (the number of items of clothing may be counted), plural in form, taking a plural verb-form, but a non-count noun (you can't have 'two clothes'). – Edwin Ashworth Aug 25 '17 at 22:53
  • @EdwinAshworth hmm, interesting. Googling reveals that I am indeed using terminology incorrectly - I see that "trousers" are considered uncountable, even though it's clear that there are two of them and that the word does not simply refer to a countless mass. (If you rip a pair of trousers in half, each half is no longer "trousers"; similarly, a single T-shirt is not "clothes".) You propose a neat alternate term, "etically countable", to capture this idea, but I'm reluctant to use it since Google tells me nobody on the internet has ever used it other than you! Is there a more standard term? – Mark Amery Aug 25 '17 at 23:02
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    The only meaningful definition of a count usage (see CGEL) is one where a numeral may be preposed. Three coffees. The two furnitures discussed by Knowles. *Seven news. *Two police. Obviously, a count usage demands that a 'plural noun' whether obviously plural in form (three dogs, three men) or not (two sheep) be available. // This answer gives links to analysis and the use of the term 'etic[ally]'. It uses 'discrete' for 'countable in the stocktaking sense'. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 25 '17 at 23:15
  • It is not "incorrect and funny to talk about scissor". Search Google books for "a scissor". The same might be said for pant. Etc. – AmE speaker Aug 26 '17 at 14:12
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What about a shambles? Although this used to be a plural form, today it's singular. See Oxford Dictionary Online. The first definition

  1. informal [treated as singular] A state of total disorder,

is never pluralized in my experience. The second definition

  1. [treated as singular] A butcher's slaughterhouse (archaic except in place names),

I can imagine pluralizing, but it's archaic.

  • Addendum: Googling, it appears that some people do use a plural form of shambles: "Those houses were shambles." But it's much less common than the singular. I'd say "Those houses were in shambles." So for many people, shambles is indeed a singulare tantum. – Peter Shor Aug 27 '17 at 15:26
  • Ah, but that usage is used with a different meaning, I think. i.e. it refers to a type of building that's in poor repair/poorly built as opposed to saying that they were a mess in the modern sense. – Araucaria Sep 17 '17 at 21:44
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There is the word series, where singular and plural are the same.

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    That isn't like how these cattle are is legal but this cattle is is illegal. You need a singular that cannot be used in the plural, like mass nouns. – tchrist Aug 26 '17 at 1:44

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