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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. – herisson 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. – Arm the good guys in America 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.

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  • 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 - Not here any more. 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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Information, advice, rush (as "in a rush") and many, many other nouns cannot be used in plural, thus are singularia tantum. I was searching for a list of singularia tantum words, but have not found so far, so will have to start my own "collection". Watch this space. :)

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  • "Information" and "advice" are mass nouns. You are of course correct that there are "many, many" such words, but this question was specifically asking for countable singularia tantum. As for "rush", it's countable, and it certainly needs to be used in the singular in the particular idiom that you quote, but nonetheless I don't think it's a singulare tantum. "Rushes" seems to be a perfectly legitimate plural form; if I search Google for "chaotic rushes" I find at least two published books using that phrase (one talking about project management, another about children on a playground). – Mark Amery Aug 27 '19 at 8:30
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The OP is looking for a singular, uncountable noun that is not a mass noun. Unfortunately, this is rather like looking for an invisible unicorn that is green.

The idea of “uncountability” in nouns is an attribute that can be given to the noun and not a permanent state. “Uncountable” is used to express the meaning of a discrete and infinite set of homogenous items as a concept. Uncountable nouns are thus, by definition concepts of a grouping that is unique and, thus, singular.

As it is a concept, a noun that is used uncountably has no physical presence. Its infinity is therefore not reduced by subtraction (or increased by addition). In “I gave him some sympathy”, “sympathy” thus cannot be plural, i.e. qualified by the number two or greater. This is as distinct from being able to be pluralised. Compare with, “I gave him my sympathies” in which “sympathies” = expressions of sympathy. Here, the attribute of countability has been given to the word by the context as we cannot say *“I gave him two sympathies.”

If a noun that is commonly used uncountably is pluralised, its meaning changes:

  • Do you want more potato? – said of, e.g. mashed potato = the [concept of the] substance known as “potato”.

  • Do you want more potatoes? - said of, e.g. roast potatoes = individual potatoes – the substance is not addressed and it assumed that the listener knows what a potato is.

Theoretically, any noun can be made countable or uncountable and it is the evolutionary state of the language that determines the current possibility.

A singularia tantum, if it were not a “mass noun” would have to possess only one example. Such items are usually expressed by a name or proper noun, but names and proper nouns may be used countably:

A: “Give it to John.”

B: “Which John? We have three Johns.”

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  • "As it is a concept, a noun that is used uncountably has no physical presence." - so milk or mashed potato have no physical presence? What? Many uncountable nouns are clearly physical things. – Mark Amery Feb 17 at 11:14
  • The conclusion here doesn't seem to be well-justified (it just takes for granted that, if a word is grammatically used as a singular non-mass noun, people will pluralise it whenever useful... but that seems questionable, given that we don't singularize words like "trousers" and "scissors" despite the meanings of the hypothetical words "trouser" and "scissor" being obvious), and indeed is contradicted by the example already given of "a shambles" which looks countable and yet has no plural form. – Mark Amery Feb 17 at 11:18
  • @Mark Amery - No, it does not.have a physical presence. In your example "milk" is not at all specific, it is simply used to indicate an amount taken from the "infinite supply of a liquid that is called "milk". – Greybeard Feb 17 at 11:45
  • One definition of the usual sense of 'shambles' (see @Peter Shor's answer) is 'a messy place' [M-W], and while 'two messy places' causes no problems, 'two shambles' does. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 17 at 12:03
  • :@Mark Amery Have a look at Google Books. "A shamble" is not uncommon. (Adapted from the OED) The derivation of “shamble” is = stool > table > table or stall upon which goods were sold > a market stall upon which meat was sold > an area containing such tables/stalls > figuratively = a mess. A shambles = an example of a set of such tables, i.e. a meat market. You will recognise this as synecdoche or metonymy. – Greybeard Feb 17 at 12:14

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