Lesson #216: Seven Nouns with Identical Singular and Plural Forms in ‘Adam Bede’

📗 Arthur had passed the village of Hayslope and was approaching the Broxton side of the hill, when, at a turning in the road, he saw a figure about a hundred yards before him which it was impossible to mistake for any one else than Adam Bede, even if there had been no grey, tailless shepherd-dog at his heels.

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859)

There are many irregular nouns in English with unusual plural forms, but one of the most confusing types of nouns for students are those nouns with identifical singular and plural forms.

Sometimes it can be challenging to figure out whether such a noun is in the singular or plural; at other times it can be difficult to know how to spell them depending on the context (e.g., is it ‘five thousand people’ or ‘thousands of people’?).

This Lesson will try to answer those rightful questions with reference to George Eliot’s first novel, a pastoral story of two brothers – Adam Bede (1859). Because some of the nouns with identifical singular and plural forms are also connected with nature, this seems like the perfect text to illustrate some useful examples.  

Here are 7 such nouns in context (with a few more included at the end of the Lesson).

📝 #1 SHEEP

📗 “Why, yes, our farm-labourers are not easily roused. They take life almost as slowly as the sheep and cows.”

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

👉 Notice how this reference to ‘sheep’ here is clearly in the plural, since it is not preceded first by ‘an’ or ‘one’, and is described alongside plural ‘cows’.

But sometimes ‘sheep’ can refer to a singular animal (for which we usually say ‘a sheep’, ‘one sheep’, or even ‘the sheep’):

📗 “And it’s very pleasant to go among the tenants here— they seem all so well inclined to me I suppose it seems only the other day to them since I was a little lad, riding on a pony about as big as a sheep.”

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

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📝 #2 FISH          

📗 ‘For the morning sun fell aslant on the great glass globe with gold fish in it, which stood on a scagliola pillar in front of the ready-spread bachelor breakfast-table, and by the side of this breakfast-table was a group which would have made any room enticing.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

✍️ Here is another plural form of ‘fish’ in the quote above – there is no ‘a’ or ‘one’ to make it singular. And here below is an example of ‘fish’ in the singular:

📗 “It’s Ben Cranage— Wiry Ben, they call him,” said Mr. Irwine; “rather a loose fish, I think …”

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

..

📝 #3 DEER

📗 ‘How could he help feeling it? The very deer felt it, and were more timid.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

Is this instance of ‘deer’ in the singular or in the plural?

What about this next one below?

📗 ‘Even then she was as ready to be startled as the deer that leaped away at her approach.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

🕯️ Answer: The first one is plural, since it uses a plural form verb ‘were’. The second one could be either singular or plural – it all depends on the context.

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📝 #4 SERIES

📗 ‘Here Bartle gave a series of fierce and rapid puffs, looking earnestly the while at Adam.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Bessy came up and dropped a series of curtsies.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘He foresaw a series of complaints tending to nothing.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

✍️ All these examples of ‘series’ are in the singular form (given they are preceded by ‘a’) – indeed, the plural form of ‘series’ doesn’t occur that often in English, most likely because by its very meaning ‘series’ gives the impression of more than one item, etc.

✒️ Here is an example I have created to show you what a plural form of ‘series’ might look like: ‘There are multiple cooking show series that I have marked to watch later, but I never seem to find the time to watch even one of them.’

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📝 #5 MEANS

📗 ‘There was more searching for the means of lighting the candle, and when that was done, he went cautiously round the room, as if wishing to assure himself of the presence or absence of something.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘… without knowing what she should do with her life, she craved the means of living as long as possible …’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

In both these examples above, ‘the means’ could be interpreted as ‘several ways of living’ or of ‘a few ways to light a candle’ – as such, plural forms.

It is different for the examples below, since they are preceded by a singular ‘a’, with ‘a means’ sounding even more emphatic because it is so specific as a singular noun here:

📗 “In the course of things we may expect that, if I live, I shall one day or other be your landlord; indeed, it is on the ground of that expectation that my grandfather has wished me to celebrate this day and to come among you now; and I look forward to this position, not merely as one of power and pleasure for myself, but as a means of benefiting my neighbours.”

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘This errand was devised for Totty as a means of checking certain threatening symptoms about the corners of the mouth; for Tommy, no longer expectant of cake, was lifting up his eyelids with his forefingers and turning his eyeballs towards Totty in a way that she felt to be disagreeably personal.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

..

📝 #6 HUNDRED

✍️ NOTE: When we are using this word after a number or a word / expression that refers to a number (e.g., ‘several’ or ‘a few’), it does not need an ‘-s’ at the end. The size of the number used (whether 1 or 50, for example) doesn’t affect this rule: it will never require an ‘-s’ at the end (e.g., ‘one hundred books’ vs ‘nine hundred books’).

However it does need an ‘-s’ at the end if it is used with an ‘of’ following (e.g., ‘hundreds of children’) or as a single-word noun in itself (e.g., ‘there were hundreds in attendance’) – something that we will cover in greater detail in another lesson to come.

📗 ‘As it was— having with all his three livings no more than seven hundred a-year …’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Arthur had passed the village of Hayslope and was approaching the Broxton side of the hill, when, at a turning in the road, he saw a figure about a hundred yards before him which it was impossible to mistake for any one else than Adam Bede, even if there had been no grey, tailless shepherd-dog at his heels.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

..

📝 #7 THOUSAND

The same note above that applies to ‘hundred’ applies to ‘thousand’: ✍️ when it is used as a numbered noun – e.g. ‘one thousand’ or ‘a few thousand people’ – it doesn’t need an ‘-s’ at the end (which it does need if it is in the form of ‘thousands of …’ or as a single-word noun in itself – ‘thousands upon thousands’).

📗 ‘I see clear enough there’s more pride nor love in my soul, for I could sooner make a thousand strokes with th’ hammer for my father than bring myself to say a kind word to him.’

– George Eliot, Adam Bede (emphasis mine)

..

Here we have looked at 7 common nouns with identical singular and plural forms, but there are many more, so to close this Lesson I am including a few extra here below for you to memorise (it will make your English-speaking life easier if you know them by heart)! ✏️

offspring

barracks

headquarters

crossroads

aircraft

spacecraft

hovercraft

moose

species

stone (weight)

million

billion

📝 Final note: If you find any of these confusing in any way, I am happy to explain the reasoning behind them to you in an individual lesson (you may get in touch with me via the contact form on the Home page).