I understand the common rule, but I need explanation about exception:

Dwarf, dwarfs or dwarves
Handkerchief (s or ves)
Hoof, hoofs or hooves
Scarf, scarfs or scarves
Wharf, wharfs or wharves 

If I will always use -ves I will be correct

  • It seems like there is no rule. ngram shows these change over time quite a lot, e.g. scarfs was about as common as scarves in 18th century, 19th century 'scarfs' was dominant, and in 20th century the trend reversed. – SF. Nov 14 '13 at 8:17
  • What must I use for be correctly? – Mediator Nov 14 '13 at 8:24
  • a different one in each case. No general rule - full irregularity. Use dictionary or ngram to check which of given pair is dominant, and just learn that by heart - just like irregular verbs. – SF. Nov 14 '13 at 8:30
  • Answer it like the answer on question – Mediator Nov 14 '13 at 9:01

I don't disagree with SF's answer, but I think a few caveats ought to be explicitly stated:

1) It's not uncommon for a dictionary (like this one) to list irregular plurals. In the case of wharf, the dictionary clearly shows both wharfs and wharves are acceptable.

2) In cases where two plurals are acceptable, that means just that – both versions are acceptable. There isn't necessarily a pressing need to go with the more prevalently-used plural.

3) In cases where you would rather use the more common form, be wary about using Ngram data blindly. For example, dwarf is both a noun and a verb, so some instances of dwarfs might be conjugated verbs instead of plural nouns, as in: The skyscraper dwarfs the nearby condominium.

4) In the case of scarf, when referring to the accessory worn around the neck, the plural can be scarfs or scarves. In the (rarer) case of referring to where two pieces of wood or metal are joined together, the plural is always scarfs: The scarfs are too weak and will have to be redesigned. Again, consult your local dictionary.

5) In some cases, when deciding which plural to use, one could decide based on pronunciation. For example, I wouldn't pronounce hoofs and hooves the same; if one of them sounds more natural in a certain context, then use that version.

6) In the same document, try to be consistent (unless you have two characters speaking in a novel; in that case, you might want to have one character use, for example, calfs, while another would say calves – unless they are referring to the muscle above the ankle; in that case, everyone should say calves.)

As an example of where some of these guidelines might be useful, relief (as a plural noun) is always reliefs, not relieves, no matter what the Ngram may say.

| improve this answer | |
  • And Tolkien is largely responsible for the modern popularity of "dwarves". – Francis Davey Dec 31 '14 at 18:06

There doesn't seem to be any rule regulating when and where the ending should be -fs and when -ves. The proportions drift over time, often changing - e.g. ngram shows scarfs was about as common as scarves in 18th century, 19th century 'scarfs' was dominant, and in 20th century the trend reversed.

The only way seems to be to learn the correct ending of each word individually, like with irregular verbs - and even that isn't "forever" as the proportions between different words seem to evolve.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.