The Word Guy: A zoo of zero-plural questions have no easy antlers
Question: I drive a school bus, and this morning one of my seventh-graders said to me, “Monte, did you see those deers on the side of the road?” I explained to him that certain words, like “deer,” are both singular and plural. Why is that?
— Monte Miller, Simsbury, Conn.
Answer: As a kid, I learned a lot about English vocabulary from my bus drivers, too, but mostly when they were angry with other motorists.
When it comes to forming plurals, English is a whimsical carpenter building an addition. Most of the time, it just tacks on an “s” or “es” (drivers, buses). But, sometimes, it gets carried away and remodels the structure of the original word (goose-geese, mouse-mice).
And, sometimes, it does nothing at all — and then sends you a bill. Nouns that don’t change in their plural forms (called “zero plurals”) include “series,” “aircraft” and “species.” But most zero-plural words refer to animals, e.g., deer, moose, sheep, elk, walrus, antelope, fish, buffalo, salmon.
(Some words, of course, have both zero and regular plurals, e.g., “I saw (bear/bears) in the woods”; “there are many fish in the sea; many of the bony fishes appeared during the Devonian period.”)
Linguists have proposed three explanations for why some animal nouns have zero plurals, but all three, like an antlered antelope attacking a rival, can be rebutted:
1. Game Theory: Many zero-plural words refer to animals that are commonly hunted.
Rebuttal: True, we often do use the singular form when we talk about stalking animals (“We’re hunting rabbit.”), but not for all of our quarry, e.g., “We’re hunting squirrels,” not “squirrel.”
2. Grandfather Clause: The zero-plural words are very old words.
Rebuttal: “Deer” and “sheep” did appear before the 12th century, but so did many animal nouns that form their plurals by adding “s,” e.g., horse, dog, cat.
3. Deutsche Doctrine: Many of the zero-plural words come from German, which rarely forms plurals by adding “s.”
Rebuttal: True enough, “deer” and “sheep” do derive from German (“scaf” and “tior,” respectively). But “moose” comes from Algonquian (a Native American language), and “salmon” comes from Latin via the French.
In fact, no one knows why some words for animals have zero plurals and others don’t. English is mysteriously and delightfully fickle, an enchanted home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play — but the gophers and prairie dogs frolic, too.