What is grammar?

Language consists of words – spoken or written – which we use to communicate with other people. Grammar is the structure of that language: the way it’s used, and the conventions that help us understand what is meant from the context.  We learn grammar as toddlers when we learn to speak, so if you speak correctly it’s likely that your children will too, without ever having been taught formally. Continue reading “Grammar”

Nouns: singular and plural

Most countable nouns have both a singular and a plural form, showing the difference between one and more than one.


The regular way of changing a noun from singular to plural is to add -s at the end.

dog / dogs, chair / chairs, difference / differences

For nouns ending in -y, you drop the -y and add -ies to form the plural.

dictionary / dictionaries, opportunity /opportunities

For nouns ending in o, you add -es to form the plural.

tomato / tomatoes, potato / potatoes


There are also several irregular ways of forming a plural.

1. With seven nouns you change the vowel. They are:

man / men  woman / women

foot /feet  goose/ geese mouse/ mice  tooth / teeth louse /lice

2. With a few nouns you change the final -f to -ve before adding the -s ending.

They include:

knife / knives  leaf / leaves wife / wives  half / halves

Some nouns in this group have a regular plural as well: scarfs and scarves, hoofs and hooves. Both possibilities are correct.

3. With three nouns you add -en. They are:

ox / oxen, child / children, brother/brethren (only in the religious sense)

4. A few nouns which have been borrowed from foreign languages have an irregular plural. They include:

stimulus / stimuli, crisis / crises, criterion / criteria, phenomenon / phenomena

Often these nouns have two plurals: they have developed a regular plural but have also kept their original irregular one. In these cases, the regular form is more informal and popular; the irregular form tends to be used by specialists.

There are no certain formulas for success. (informal)

We have to learn all the relevant chemical formulae. (specialist)

5. A few nouns have no plural ending, but you can still use them in a singular or plural way: they include the names of some animals (such as sheep, deer, cod), certain nationalities (such as Japanese, Swiss), some nouns expressing quantity (such as ton, p (=”pence)),” and a few others (such as aircraft, crossroads, kennels, offspring).

The sheep was making a noise.The sheep were making a noise.


Compound nouns combine two or more words into a single unit. You usually make them plural by adding -s at the end of the word: can-openers, grown-ups. But in a few cases, the first part of the compound takes the -s ending, especially when the compound contains a preposition.

runner-up – runners-up

passer-by – passers-by

man-of-war – men-of-war

Sometimes, a regular plural form has developed, which is slowly replacing the irregular one.

spoonfuls (also spoonsful

mother-in-laws (also mothers-in-law)


Several nouns are used only in the singular. There are three main types:

1. Proper names – names of particular people, places, times, occasions, events, and so on.

John, Robinson, Christmas, Tuesday

You can use these in the plural only if you think of them in a countable way. This is especially common with proper nouns expressing time.

On Tuesdays I go swimming.

Are the Robinsons coming to the party?

We stayed with Mary three Christmasses ago

2. Most uncountable nouns, such as music and advice, are only singular.

3. A group of nouns which you use in the singular, even though they end in -s. These include the names of certain subjects, diseases, and games.

physics, linguistics, mumps, measles, billiards

A common mistake is to think of these as plural, and use them with a plural verb or form a singular noun from them.

Linguistics is fascinating.  NOT  Linguistics are fascinating.

Billiards is a game.  NOT  Billiards are a game.

Poor Mike’s got measles.  NOT  Poor Mike’s got a measle.


Several nouns are used only in the plural. There are three main types:

1. A few nouns are related to things consisting of two joined parts. They include jeans, binoculars, trousers, pliers, scissors. To talk about these in the singular, you use a pair of.

Your jeans are in the wash.  NOT Your jeans is in the wash.

I need to buy another pair of jeans.  NOT I need to buy another jeans.

NOT I need to buy another jean.

2. A few nouns ending in -s are used only in the plural. They include congratulations, outskirts, remains, stairs, thanks.

The stairs were steep and winding.  NOT The stairs was steep and winding

NOT The stair was steep and winding.

These are not uncountable nouns, because they are used with how many, not how much.

How many stairs are there?  NOT How much stairs are there?

3. A few nouns express the idea of groups of people or animals. They include people, folk, police, cattle, poultry, livestock.

The police are outside.  NOT The police is outside.

NOT The polices are outside.

Articles and Determiners

Determiners are used before a noun to determine the character of the noun  in particular, how definite or general a noun it is, and whether it is one or more than one. When you use a noun, you have the choice of using it in one of three possible states.

1. You can use the noun without any determiner at all.

in the singular, if it is a proper noun  Boston is on the east coast.

in the singular, if it is an uncountable noun.  I can hear music.

in the plural, if it is a countable noun.  Tigers have black stripes.

When you use a plural countable noun without the article, you are seeing the noun in a general way – tigers in general.

2. You can use the noun with either of the articles, a or the:

use a with singular, countable nouns.  I can see a car.

use the with singular countable nouns.  I can see the car.

use the with plural countable nouns.  I can see the cars.

use the with uncountable nouns.  I can see the water.

The articles are the most common determiners in English. Their main job is to say whether the noun is definite or indefinite.

3. You can use the noun with one of the other determiners. This adds a further meaning to the noun. For example:

determiner adds the meaning of

my book possession also (our, his, her etc)

this book nearness to the speaker (also plural these)

that book distance from the speaker (also plural those)

some books quantity (also any)