While there are many fish words that are pluralized by adding an -s (sharks, minnows, guppies, etc.), there are also many which do not inflect in the plural (trout, cod, bass, salmon, etc.)

This contrasts strongly with the other animal classes. A few mammal words do not inflect (e.g., sheep, moose, deer), but the vast majority do. And I am not aware of the non-inflection of bird, insect, reptile, or amphibian words (although there may be some):

? a sky full of crow

? a field full of butterfly

? a pit full of snake

? a stream full of newt

There are some questions about the pluralization of fish elsewhere on this site, (https://english.stackexchange.com/search?q=fish+plural) but none that I can find answers my question:

Why is it typically only fish words that do not inflect in the plural?

  • The whole question of animal names which do not form plurals has been raised many times before. For example see this question on "deer". If you type "animal plurals" in the search box it will come up with many more. – WS2 Jan 24 '18 at 9:03
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    I cannot be certain about this, but what they seem to have in common is that they are eaten and in the majority of cases hunted first, often for sport. There would be nothing wrong with using ‘deers’ or ‘trouts’. People would find it odd, but know exactly what you meant. Who knows? It might catch on in the future. There is, however, another example of non plural with weights and measures. You could have ‘6 pound of carrots’ or ‘5 hundredweight of gravel’. In some countries ‘kilo’ is often not pluralised, probably because in Greece, say, traders cannot be bothered. – Tuffy Jan 24 '18 at 9:55
  • @WS2. The question you link to has a good answer relating to mammals, but nothing I have found here has a comparative analysis of the pluralization of fish and other animal class words. – Shoe Jan 24 '18 at 11:51

I have long suspected that with a few exceptions, species of fish (and sometimes fowl) destined for human consumption are often treated as mass nouns, mostly because they are seen as commodities.

bass, halibut, carp, perch, trout, cod, salmon, tuna

One sardine won't make a meal even for a kitten, so it's hardly a surprise sardine has a plural, but krill are so small they don't even rate a singular.

Tilapia is a species relatively recent to the seafood counter, likely the reason the style guide of the American Fisheries Society (scroll down to the appendix) lists it among those that can form an s-plural or not.

Most crustaceans form s-plurals even though delicious — lobsters, scallops, clams, mussels — but while crab and shrimp may be plural crustaceans, i.e., doing their natural thing in the ocean, they are almost always mass noun shellfish, i.e., playing a crucial role in gumbo.

Any fish whose name is a compound ending in -fish stays -fish in the plural whether you eat it or not.

The men in my family of my father's generation enjoyed dove and quail hunting, so these two birds were always mass nouns at home, but I noticed that classmates who never ate them would use s-plurals.

  • Thanks for your answer. There seems to be a pattern in the fact that words for larger fish intended to be eaten do not inflect, although this does not apply to sharks. But the 'large edible' explanation raises the question of why the same does not apply to cows, rabbits, pigs, etc. By the way, did you father come home and say: There weren't [many dove] or [many doves] around today? – Shoe Jan 25 '18 at 10:57
  • Large edible is your category, not mine: large enough for a meal would be closer to what I have in mind. Shark has never been a traditional component of British or American cuisine. Mammals are another kettle of fish. :) Deer originally meant 'animal' as opposed to 'human,' as it still does in German, but deer were favored game animals, so they took over the word. The sg. and pl. of sheep merged already in Old English, but German still has a plural. — My male relatives would say there weren't many birds out today, which delighted my brother and me, since we usually had to pluck and gut them. – KarlG Jan 25 '18 at 11:27
  • They also might say that the dove/quail weren't flying today. – KarlG Jan 25 '18 at 11:29

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