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‘pants’, ‘glasses’, ‘scissors’, {et similar}, in the sense of “a pair of [..]”: singular or plural?

I always slow myself to use the singular, since the usage is referring to it as one singular unit. I.e., I take a preference for

"Where is my glasses? I must have put it somewhere around here.."

over “..are.. ..them..”, since semantically ‘the glasses’ (as in one singular "pair of" eyeglasses, used as one unit) count as one object. I realize that prescriptively this might not be correct, but pragmatically and semantically it is rather more accurate.

What about yous?, thoughts?, rationale?, basis?

See also this Question concerning 'scissors' specifically.

nota bene: If you downvote this, please state your reason (where able to do so). Constructive critique is welcomed.

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  • See english.stackexchange.com/questions/400138/….
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 23:54
  • @Xanne I did read that, but this post is seeking more of a justification andor reasoning than "because the books say so". Inconsistencies abound.. "pants" as a plural because historically each pantaloon was literally its own entity. not so any more. So why are eyeglasses, cutting tools, and similar any different (with respect to grammatical rules)? Perhap changing the 's' ending to a 'z' might help.
    – 11qq00
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 23:55
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    See also the historical use of scissors, pants, eyeglasses, trousers as pluralin Google Nfram. Usage wins.
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 0:12
  • I've done my best to edit this into something that might be answerable here, but our sister site for English Language Learners may be more suitable.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 0:50
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    I’m voting to close this question because it asks about the acceptability of an extremely unidiomatic practice / suggested practice. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 11:28

5 Answers 5

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Does this sound wrong to na­tive speak­ers?

Yes.

If it does, can I do it any­way?

Yes, but many people will think less of your language skills if you do.

I know lots of people who speak English as a second language and have lived and worked in English-language environments for decades. Some of them use incorrect idioms repeatedly. One likes to say "war broke up" instead of "war broke out." Another likes to say "go outside for dinner" instead of "go out for dinner." We all know what they mean, but even after many years it is still odd and disorienting to hear it.

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    English-speaking Welsh people used to (maybe still do) speak of 'a scissor' and 'a trouser'. I dated a girl aged 18 from Cardiff in 1970 who did. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 7:26
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    Not to mention the bugbear of many schoolteachers: referring to a pair of compasses (for drawing circles) as "a compass". But while many pupils said "can I borrow your compass?", none would say "this compasses is mine". OP's English is clearly excellent, which means that the deliberate singular/plural mismatch in their idiolect will sound very peculiar and jarring. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 10:11
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    In fashion it's reportedly become common to talk of a trouser, a jean, etc. So people might think you were a fashionista if you said it, but it would still sound odd to many. (Although the question is about trousers as a singular not trouser as a singular.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 12:56
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    @phoog - yes, in Wales, many people use (or used) 'a scissor' to mean 'a pair of scissors'. Likewise 'trouser'. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 13:55
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    Plurals for items that have two inseparable parts are more common than it seems. Shorts, [swim] trunks, panties, tights, hose, stockings, eyeglasses, pants. The fashion industry uses singulars to attract attention, just as advertising uses jarring grammar.
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 19:38
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Let me clarify a little further. Look at the words scissors, glasses, pants. Each is a plural. You want to be able to say, "The scissors is over there," but the problem is that you're referring to a plural and therefore can't use "is." You can say, "The scissor is over there, but then you'd be referring to a single one of the two parts that make up a pair of scissors. You could not say "The pants I bought is on the bed," and it would be ridiculous to say, "The pant I bought is on the bed" because we never refer to half of a pair of pants. I don't think the issue is one of tradition, but just basic subject/verb agreement.

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  • "[...]because we never refer to half of a pair of pants[...]" This is precisely why I view 'pants' as a singular object (instead of plural) --and the fact that they are mechanically bound. Pluralizing it can use "pairs of.." (since 'pantses' is awkward, and 'pair of..' is already normal). Same with 'scissors', though perhaps its explicitly singular use ("scissor") is slightly more common than in case of 'pants' ("pant").
    – 11qq00
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 1:35
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    You say "why I view 'pants' as a singular object . . ." but if you think about it, "pants," "glasses," "scissors" all end in "s" because they're plurals, not singulars. Think about all the things we routinely think of as pairs: eyes, nostrils, ears, stereo speakers. In each of these cases, we readily separate the pairs and speak of one eye or nostril or ear or speaker. It's just that the singles are often used in the singular. That's not really true for glasses, scissors, pants. They are theoretically separable, but rarely if ever used that way.
    – sealion
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 1:49
  • Human body parts that come in pairs are typically treated individually. Even if they aren't, they are physically separate---unlike most cases dealing with scissors, pants, et cetera. As commonly used, "cutting with scissors" means the same as "cutting with a pair of scissors". Compare "I used my hands to hold the axe." versus "...[just one of]/[both of] my hands": in each case, the hands are distinct, even if they are working in unison---a lesser type of unison than with tools that inherently must be unified. "hands are clasping", vs "scissors is cutting." or "knife cuts". object to cut
    – 11qq00
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 1:57
  • @11qq00 sure, you're describing how singular and plural usually work. But hands are things that usually come in pairs, but are not always used in pairs. Scissors, pants/trousers, and (nearly always) glasses/spectacles are invariably found in "pairs" or, if you look at it another way, they lose their function when they are split into their two constituent parts. This is why they have effectively become a singular object that is treated grammatically as a plural, while hands have not.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 13:55
  • You're confusing usage with form and with logic. Scissors (think of the metal device, not the word) can be considered etically (by someone from a different planet who's never come across this invention before, say) as a joined pair or as a whole. And this is reflected in the fact that 'scissors' is acceptably given plural agreement by many, but singular agreement by some (Merriam-Webster states this clearly). But M-W also says that the plural form 'scissors' is never 'singularised' to 'scissor'. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 14:31
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Where ❓❓is my glasses? I must have put ❓❓it some­where around here.

Does this sound wrong to na­tive speak­ers? If it does, can I do it any­way?

Yes, it sounds wrong, the statement much more so than the question. Yes, you can do it, but the former will sound "incorrect" in an ordinary way typical of fluent speakers' casual speech. The latter will sound glaringly wrong, and something only a non-native speaker will do.

Some dialects of English, at least historically, used singular verb forms with some plural subjects, for instance the stereotypical Westcountry "them's the one, they is". But unless your accent matches, and you exhibit other features of a suitable dialect, nobody's going to think you're talking proper Westcountry.

That feature is probably restricted to basolects in any case.

However, specifically "there is" and "where is" are so frequently reduced to "there's" or "where's" that it's pretty unremarkable, in speech at least, to say things like

Where's the kids?

There's only five eggs in this carton.

If you were to use the uncontracted form, it would sound a little bit more wrong, but not egregiously so.

But using a singular verb form, or indeed a singular pronoun, to refer to something that's grammatically plural, is just not done by native speakers (except in specific dialects as mentioned above):

* The scissors is on the table.

* The scissors? It's on the table.

Unless you finish that sentence with "Mr Frodo sir" or "Professor Iggins", it will most definitely raise eyebrows.

[Added in response to a request by OP]

By way of comparison: every schoolkid's starter geometry set used to include a ruler, a pencil, an eraser, two set squares, a protractor, and a device for drawing a circle. Our teachers would always refer to this device as a pair of compasses (which is indeed the "correct" name). Most of the kids would continue to call it a compass despite the teachers' admonishments. (A compass is a device for pointing north.)

Of course, compass ends with a sibilant, so its plural has a whole extra syllable /ɨz/ at the end, whereas we pluralise scissor by just adding /z/ to the end, without adding an extra syllable. Maybe the fact that a kid can say "my scissors" for almost no more effort than "my scissor", but that "my compasses" is a bit more work than "my compass", contributes to the way that pair of compasses often gets entirely de-pluralised, while pair of scissors rarely does. (Notwithstanding @MichaelHarvey's interesting points about a scissor being idiomatic Welsh!)

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Actually, you can use "is" if you're referring to the "pair" of pants, "pair" of scissors, etc. Each of these things is, in fact, two things made into one. So, "Where are my glasses" can also be expressed as "where is my pair of glasses." "Where are my pants" is the same as "where is my pair of pants."

This is similar to the rule governing collective nouns. The group is; the members of the group are.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 21:40
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The question of whether to treat the plural noun either as a singular or as a plural is not fundamental in my opinion. What matters is the object considered. The best descriptive term for all these devices is that which makes use of the words "pair of" in a phrase of the type "pair of < X's >"; but this is at best what "linguists" in days past saw as sufficiently logical for the purpose of providing a descriptive term or at least a correct identifying term; those terms using "pair" are still falsely descriptive: given a pair of scissors, we are not dealing with two scissors but instead with two scissors and a rivet that holds them together in a certain way which results in one single tool proper to achieve particular tasks; whatever the "tool" you consider, the same scheme recurs. It is clear that linguists of days past shied away from the usual job of providing a fully descriptive term. To compound the logical difficulty, usage has seen fit to introduce a would-be simplification in the way of suppressing the sole indicator of the object being a unit, that is, only the plural term in the "pair" construction was kept; that results obviously in flagrant contradiction.

So, the question about who is right in using a particular agreement, whether those who use a plural or those who use a singular is not relevant. Those pretending or feeling they are right in using a singular because they rightly consider that they are dealing with a unit are still wrong as they apply this principle to a term that cannot be descriptive of a unit, but name a plurality, and those pretending or feeling rightly that they are right in using a plural because the word is plural are still wrong because they apply this principle to a term that is falsely descriptive of a unit. There is no way out except that of a renaming: "scissors" and "pair of scissors" are not used any more, except for naming what they naturally name and the term "xxxxxx" is chosen for the unit. As a bonus, it becomes possible to identify a plurality of such units by means of an s truly representative of a plural: "xxxxxxs".

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