The Paradox of Plurals — More Than One, or Less?

June 1, 2015

Reporter’s Toolbox


What do you call a group of alga? Algae, of course. This furry alga coats the north face of rocks in Point Reyes, Calif. Called Trentepohlia, these algae contain green chlorophyll, but red pigments predominate.                            Photo: Chris Bruggers

One elephant, two elephants, a herd of elephants. No one privileged to have witnessed these magnificent animals on their own turf in Africa could deny the splendor and dignity of every individual.

But suddenly, when they become quarry, hunters go after “elephant.” They pursue “leopard” and “rhino.” The fearsome lions and tigers and bears in the Land of Oz, when game for hunters, are reduced to “lion,” “tiger,” “bear.”

What happened? Deprived of the plural “s,” the prey transform from living, breathing and potentially dangerous animals into something abstract, therefore at once less threatening and less subject to uncomfortable ethics.

With one stroke, the hunt is exalted, and the prey is diminished.

The dropped “s” is not an accident. For example, on a hunting blog, a hunter uses “elephant” when he is hunting, “elephants”when he is estimating the number of individuals. He writes, “I have hunted elephant three times. ... Each hunt I saw numerous (far in excess of 100) elephants.” This is the same person talking, so he sees a difference between the two options and chooses each to fit the context.

A travel writer for the Seattle Times praises Zambia, where “…big game such as lion, leopard and elephant is abundant.” Yet in the same article, she recounts, “We sit for maybe 20 minutes and watch as the elephants eat and lock tusks.” Again, “elephant” as game is a formless singular, but when watching an elephant family, she mentions the mother, baby, aunt: now they are individuals.

I hunted elephant, drank water, added flour and sugar. These nouns for substances or commodities have no plural. Are elephants substances?

Deer, elk, moose. Bison, beaver, grouse. When wild animals become sport or commodities, they lose their individual identity. The words quarry, game and prey themselves conveniently lack explicit plurals.

Oddly, domestic animals are a mix.

We say one sheep, two sheep with no unambiguous plural form, while poultry, cattle, and livestock are plurals with no singular form. At the same time, the particular kinds (chickens, geese) or genders (hens or roosters, cows or bulls) merit specified plurals; if your goal is eggs or milk, the gender of the individual producer is critical.

Domestic animals with whom we enjoy individual relationships invariably retain explicit plurals: dogs, cats, horses.

Seafood somehow has its own rules.

We use the same word fish both for the animal and for the flesh that’s eaten. But ichthyologists and fishermen will say fishes when they mean more than one species. (This is simply a convention, and a cryptic one; an invented policy applying to a single animal group can only complicate writing and confuse readers. Why not one fish, two fishes?)

Ambiguous plurals prevail for salmon, trout, tuna, sole, halibut, bass, herring, cod — but, strangely, anchovies and sardines take an “s.” Squid and shrimp are rarely if ever dignified with plurals, but clams, mussels, and oysters always are — because we have to deal with each one individually to wrest it from its shell and then eat the whole animal?

Ironically, the language of the conservation community follows that of hunters and fishermen. It may be because these different interest groups interact closely, but also, conservationists are often most focused on abstractions (populations and distributions), somewhat less on individuals.

In contrast, biologists studying behavior, for example, must commonly distinguish their study subjects as individuals and therefore automatically use plurals: elephants, rhinos, beavers, fishes, octopuses and abalones.

Environmental journalists, while free to choose their language, should be aware that their choices are thickly layered with context.

Journalists should consider context, scientific terminology

Another realm of difficulty for environmental journalists is a technical one, the correct handling of biological names for animals, plants, microbes and their parts. If it’s any comfort, professional biologists regularly stumble over these words, too.

Again, plurals are the main hurdles. It’s unfortunate, in this respect, that English has become the international language of scientific communication, because English retains the Latin and Greek forms, both singular and plural, of many terms.

These same terms in French, Spanish, Italian and German scientific literature are rendered in terms consonant with each language, and the regular plural endings of each language apply; hence, there’s no comparable problem.

The attachment of English speakers to Latin and Greek terms might be blamed on the tradition of teaching these languages in fashionable schools to young gentlemen who then clung to this mark of privilege. Now such classes are nearly extinct, but we are stuck with this heritage.

In English, for example, the term for what are commonly called seaweeds is algae; the singular is alga. Because we all learn language as infants, by ear, and encounter such exotic words much later in life, we have no ear for what is right, and effort is needed to keep the grammar straight. Thus, one continually hears and reads, for example, “the algae is.”

A natural extension of this kind of error is the creation of appalling super-plurals: if you mistakenly think, “the algae is,” it’s only a short, logical step to “the algaes are.”

One can also read dismaying collections of multiple stumbles, such as “Is yeast a bacteria or a fungi?” We are not making this up.

Not abstractions, but individual beings

Avoiding such gross errors requires, first, that you know and apply the correct singular and plural of a few common words: alga, algae; bacterium, bacteria; fungus, fungi; genus, genera.

Second, where the grammatical construction might be tricky, as in “an algae-covered rock,” a simple test will help: mentally substitute some word with a regular plural ending, such as oysters. One would never say “the oysters is” or “an oysters-covered rock,” even if many oysters were covering said rock.

But, trying as the Latin and Greek are, this difficulty reveals a further dimension, with echoes of the hunting or commodity mentality.

People unfamiliar with seaweed biology often forget that algae are distinct organisms. Like the hunters stalking lions as “lion,” they view seaweeds as “seaweed,” a substance, an abstraction, or a commodity, instead of what they are: individual living beings.

Here again, the absent or misused plural undermines our experience and appreciation of the diversity and worth of the living organisms around us.

Indeed, this pattern of lost plurals repeats itself even in human relations when management talks of “labor,” as if of a mere resource or commodity, while those doing the labor see themselves as nothing less than distinct individuals and speak of “employees” or “workers.”

As environmental journalists, your main concerns will be to use the language thoughtfully and correctly, being aware of such subtleties that may initially seem trivial but communicate a loaded context. Seemingly small stumbling blocks such as plurals can turn out to be big pitfalls.

Vicki and John Pearse are marine biologists with doctorates from Stanford University. They have written or edited — separately, together and in collaboration with others — dozens of research papers, two textbooks and a multivolume treatise. John is professor emeritus, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Universityof California, Santa Cruz. Vicki was founding editor of the international research journal Invertebrate Biology.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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