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We wear a shirt, a jacket but a pair of pants.

Why is pants plural?

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    Well, a "pant" would only be good for one leg... just like a "short", a "trouser"...
    – user730
    Dec 21, 2010 at 9:36
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    @J. M.: A shirt also has two arms, but we don't call it a "shirts". The question is why "pants", "shorts", "trousers", "knickers" etc. are plural, even though each of them is just an ordinary single piece of clothing. Dec 21, 2010 at 10:11
  • 1
    Perhaps the question should be whether all nouns that end in 's' are always plural in some form. Dec 21, 2010 at 11:27
  • In my English class (I'm German), I learned that it is called "a pair of trousers". Maybe it is the same for those "shoes"?
    – Uwe Keim
    Dec 21, 2010 at 15:34
  • 3
    @Claudiu: hilarious, but I doubt it was inadvertent!
    – PLL
    Dec 21, 2010 at 21:57

6 Answers 6

90

A quick search led me to the excellent site World Wide Words run by Michael Quinion

The site has an entire page on this issue. Here's a brief snippet.

Before the days of modern tailoring, such garments, whether underwear or outerwear, were indeed made in two parts, one for each leg. The pieces were put on each leg separately and then wrapped and tied or belted at the waist (just like cowboys’ chaps). The plural usage persisted out of habit even after the garments had become physically one piece. However, a shirt was a single piece of cloth, so it was always singular.

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    Watch movies based in old England and you'll see examples of clothes where the sleeves and pants were separate and tied or fastened on.
    – Greg
    Dec 22, 2010 at 6:14
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    This explanation is completely dubious since its insufficient to explain why <scissors> is plural. And <glasses> and <headphones> and <binoculars>. And <knickers>, <pajamas>, <tights>. What you observe may be complete coincidence.
    – Pacerier
    Jul 29, 2017 at 10:08
  • @Pacerier regarding 'scissors' in particular, the reasons are a bit esoteric. Look into the etymology of scissor. Just as incisors, from the Latin incidere (to cut); scissors also derive from *cisoria meaning a 'plurality of cutting instruments'. Even though english doesn't have the root word for cutting instrument, it borrowed scissors from French and Latin so it is still, more-or-less, the word cutters. Scissors are plural because they are cutting instruments found in pairs. Saying 'plural of scissors' is like saying 'plural of dogs'. Rather, the implied "pair" is the word to pluralize Oct 18, 2021 at 0:29
  • 1
    @Pacerier Additionally, the question was very specifically about "pants", not why we use the plural form for some nouns.
    – Joachim
    Oct 18, 2021 at 7:16
5

Apparently in the past they were two tube weakly linked, think to current tights. Hence the plural form.

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  • I think there is something about wearing a pair of pants or something like that.
    – Eldroß
    Dec 21, 2010 at 10:00
  • Yes but the question is, why a pair of pants is a single object? A pair of shoes is a couple of separate objects.
    – Uberto
    Dec 21, 2010 at 10:12
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    What, no, a pair of shoes is singular just as a pair of pants is. Look at the pronouns you just used! If you're talking about whether the parts of the whole can be used separately, well, just cut a pair of pants in half and you have yourself a pant and a pant. Dec 21, 2010 at 22:01
  • not singular, single object as in one inseparable object... well mine for sure. ;)
    – Uberto
    Dec 21, 2010 at 22:33
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    @GaretClaborn This answer was posted in 2010, but it was also posted earlier than the top scored answer, which contains the following quote "The pieces were put on each leg separately and then wrapped and tied or belted at the waist (just like cowboys’ chaps)" Uberto's answer says were two tube weakly linked, think to current tights. I guess that this answer scored fewer upvotes because of its grammatical errors e.g. two tubeS (LEGS), think OF, and also the lack of supporting evidence.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 18, 2021 at 12:45
1

It actually makes perfect sense. Think of these examples. "The clown wore a pair of pants where one pant was red and the other pant green". Also, "The amputee wore his pants with one pant tied up and the other pant covering his good leg". The proper use of the singular and plural is used to make the meaning clear. Or if you look at panties as a whole with two openings or two short upper leg coverings we use the plural, however, if we only refer to the single toursal opening we say "panty waist", especially when referring to a male who is less masculine or who acts cowardly. And by the way "sleeves" is upper body equivalent of pants. "The shirt has short sleeves". "He wore short sleeves". In both these examples we used sleeves as a noun. When we use it as an adjective of a singular noun, we use the singular, ". . . short-sleeve shirt".

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    I would normally say one leg, not one pant. Oct 2, 2013 at 1:08
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    Yes you can say one pant, one leg or one pant leg when you are referring to pants.
    – Bob Benson
    Oct 2, 2013 at 5:15
  • It's the proper use of singular and plural as set by at least 500 years of usage in modern English.
    – Bob Benson
    Oct 2, 2013 at 23:41
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    It may be proper, but it's not used in practice. About 90% of the occurrences of “one pant” appear in the phrase “one pant leg,” and many of the rest have nothing to do with trousers. So while I wouldn't say this is wrong, it's definitely not typical usage. Oct 3, 2013 at 0:34
-1

It's referring to the components that make up the whole. A pair of pants consists of two pants. Much like a pair of glasses (usually) has two pieces of glass.

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    But that doesn't explain why. Other languages manage perfectly well making them singular.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 22, 2010 at 17:58
  • Colin: Swedish uses plural also, for pants (byxor), jeans and glasses (glasögon), the latter translates to glass-eyes. However, a pair of scissors is "sax", which is singular. Sep 3, 2014 at 8:36
  • Have to disagree regarding "other languages". They may manage to make pants singular but then they do not have the subdivided singular, individual pant in the same word. This answer is as correct as any. Pants, in common use, are actually collections of pairs, NOT a plural of pant. ie, it is possible to have 1 pant (half a pair), 55 pants (normal plurality of 1 pant as would be found in a clothing factory) while simultaneously possible to have 55 'pairs of pants' (fully composed of components). Swedish just runs into the same trouble in a different way if translating the previous sentence ... Oct 17, 2021 at 23:57
  • .. it is really that pant and pants follow standard plurality, only usage of "pair of pants" gets shortened to "pants" for convenience. Find a language where all three pant, pants and pair of pants are expressed with plural/singular semantics and I will be impressed. It may actually be out there but certainly most languages hit the same issue Oct 17, 2021 at 23:59
-1

The "proper" phrasing, is more lax than most. Just as you don't have to say "I" at the beginning of sentences that imply the word.

The plural 'pants' is already the plural of pant. Pairs is the word which becomes plural when referring to multiple pairs of pants.

Merely we lazy so grammar has to make an exception for English being a living language and people speaking as they wish. The "pairs of" became implicit in-context.

Pants are accurately representing the plural of pant at all times with a standard "s". A clothing factory may have 999 pants, though we will usually call these "pant legs" due to ambiguous usage.

"Pair of pants" is changed to "pairs of pants" but we do not always say "pair of" or "pairs of"; creating the confusion.

This applies equally to binoculars, socks, glasses and any thing which can be correctly described as "pairs of X" but often occurs abridged.

-2

I think it just like the "shoes". You cannot have one "shoe" as well as one "part" of the pants.

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    Speak for yourself. I have both a left shoe and a right shoe.
    – Eric
    Dec 21, 2010 at 11:16
  • Just my thought, that normally, will you wear just one left (or right) shoe when you are going out?
    – Ngoc Pham
    Dec 27, 2010 at 8:30
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    It depends. If he only needs one step to get the mail, he might only put on the shoe for the foot necessary for the task? Jan 16, 2012 at 7:29
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    Captain Ahab begs to differ. Jun 29, 2014 at 15:22
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    What about the phrase "I lost my shoe!" It's not a requirement to lose both at the same time. Not to mention "shoe" means more than an item of clothing. See camera shoe, wood plane shoe, etc.
    – Malvineous
    Jan 11, 2017 at 8:08

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