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I just thought about this today. Normally when something good happened to some friend we would say "congratulations" to them but we make it plural, instead of "congratulation". I wonder what is the underlying (grammatical) reason for doing this?

And this got me wondering if there are any other similar situations where when we say a word we would have to pluralize it.

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    Salutations. Greetings. Thanks. I don't know if I agree those are plurals though.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 21 at 19:08
  • There is a related question on our sister site EL&U: english.stackexchange.com/q/524701/80039 I don't think it answers your question though.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 21 at 20:24
  • I reckon "salutations" and "greetings" are definitely plural ("greetings have been sent", "his salutations were halfhearted"). "Thanks" is a bit less clearcut, although in the phrase "many thanks" it's clearly a plural. Not sure if my doubt over "thanks" is related to the suffices -tion and -ing, which clearly identify their words as nouns meaning "an instance of the act of the verb salute/greet", whereas a "thank" isn't a thing. Apr 22 at 13:56
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    @Tanner In Malay, the plural is marked by reduplication. And to congratulate someone, it is always "tahniah", never "tahniah-tahniah". One can modify it with an adjective: eg. "Setinggi-tinggi tahniah" but not with a quantitifier: *"sebanyak-banyak tahniah" sounds wrong to me as a Malay speaker.
    – user178049
    Apr 24 at 0:19
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    @user178049 People sometimes say "ribuan tahniah" (literally, thousands of congratulations) though, don't they?
    – Jack Leow
    Apr 24 at 23:03
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To add to Stangdon's good answer, some grammarians use a more understandable term such as the plural-only nouns (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002).

There are several subcategories of plural-only nouns such as the bipartites (eg. "trousers", "pajamas", "bloomers"), words of compensation and reward (eg. "apologies", "compliments", "regards"1), and formal expressions of feelings (eg. "condolences", "thanks", "congratulations").


1 The singular counterparts of these exist but are generally used in different senses

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    H&P aren't exactly known for being understandable....
    – Lambie
    Apr 22 at 14:49
  • @Lambie Hmm.. Agreed.
    – user178049
    Apr 22 at 14:58
36

There is something called a plurale tantum, which is a noun that only ever appears in the plural form.

Some examples are

  • scissors
  • trousers
  • shears
  • riches
  • remains
  • shenanigans

You can't have "a scissor" or "a trouser" or "a shear" in the normal meaning of these words, and you can't say "His remain was found in the valley" or "He has vast rich" or "She pulled a shenanigan"; you always have to use the plural form.

It's not clear why these pluralia tantum exist. In some cases the item is obviously "paired" or "twinned" in some way (like scissors) but not always (like remains). Congratulations appears to be one of these strange cases.

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    "You can't have ... "a trouser"" Sure you can. It's one of the legs of the set of trousers. That's why we call them "a pair of trousers" - back when they were first introduced in the Middle Ages, each leg was a separate garment.
    – nick012000
    Apr 22 at 2:59
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    @nick012000 The occurrence of the singular form "trouser" in everyday speech is so close to zero, you couldn't afford the number of decimal places it would take before a single nonzero digit. Apr 22 at 5:56
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    Scissor actually exists, and it consists of one blade (instead of two blades paired in a pair of scissors) - in French, many people say "a scissor" when referring to "a pair of scissors" but it's incorrect and often leads to arguments
    – Rafalon
    Apr 22 at 10:32
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    @ChrisH Coincidentally enough, my wife is a tailor and designer! I asked her about the usage of singular trouser and scissor, and she looked at me like I had rocks in my head. That may or may not have had anything to do with the English question, though. _(ツ)_/¯
    – stangdon
    Apr 22 at 13:36
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    @Strawberry The thing to be aware of with that Ngrams search is that it will also catch things like trouser press and scissor hold.
    – stangdon
    Apr 22 at 13:38
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While the other answers make interesting observations about plural-only or plural-tantum words, 'congratulation' is not one of them. Here is an example:

"Here is my congratulation to you" - reluctantly hands over money for a lost bet

I believe that "congratulations" is now a contraction of typically longer and more formal phrases like:

"I am sending you many congratulations on the birth of your child"

Which can be shortened to:

"Congratulations on the birth of your child"

Other words that work like this are 'thanks':

I would like to thank you by giving you this gift.
Many thanks to you for your help

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    "I congratulate you on your win" is grammatically unrelated since this is a verb, not a singular noun. Apr 22 at 9:16
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    Your example for "thanks" does not show what you say it shows, because you show no singular example for "thank". (Being grammatically countable does not necessarily imply a singular form is used.) I think what you're getting at is addressed by the note at the end of @user178049's answer: for many words like "congratulations", the singular form exists as a word but is used in a different sense. The phrases "many gifts" or "my gifts" do not mean something like "congratulations" when used as an exclamation; something is special about "congratulations", "thanks", etc.
    – Dan Getz
    Apr 22 at 10:49
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    Her help was only worth one thank, while her sister's help was worth many thanks. It doesn't really work that way when using "thank" as a noun.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 22 at 11:15
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    @ColleenV I like that as a passive aggressive usage though, maybe we should bring that in! Apr 22 at 11:57
  • The website CakeWrecks many years ago famously featured an professionally-iced cake that bore the deeply halfhearted legend "CONGRATULATION!"... Apr 22 at 14:01
2

I am inclined to agree with @josh that many of the examples @user178049 gives are not really plural-only nouns: apology, compliment, condolence, in their plural forms, really do just refer to multiple instances of their singular forms. "Thanks" is a weird one, and also, uniquely amongst the examples we've seen of what @user178049 elegantly summarised as "words of compensation and reward... and formal expressions of feelings", it's not an abstract noun derived from a verb by adding a suffix like -tion, -ence, -ing and then pluralising it.

Lots of interesting points have been raised, but to my mind the answer must be connected to how "congratulations!", "commiserations!", "thanks!", "apologies!" etc are reduced from versions where there's a preceding "many" or "my". Just naming a singular noun as a one-word sentence would feel very weird indeed -- do we ever do this? My gut feeling is that single-word sentences using a plural noun are only valid because we have generalised the rule that you can omit the "many"/"my" etc from the two-word version, but we haven't extended that to singular nouns.

It still leaves me wondering why we use the plural forms in the first place: "please send her my apology", "he sent condolence" etc are grammatical, but they give the impression that a single, specific message is being sent. But when we hear "my apologies", "his condolences", we conventionally understand it to mean the metaphorical extension that it's referring to a sentiment, not a specific message.

Thesaurus.com says that "congratulations" has been used in this manner since C17 but doesn't cite sources

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The pluralization is from (1) speaking on behalf of many people or (2) in the spectrum of many versions. Example: We send you our congratulations (1 from each); or I send you congratulations (many forms). In many cases the pronoun, subject, and verb is dropped, leaving you with the object in a colloquial, shorthand format.

  • Similar practices are observed in dining: [our/my] compliments to the chef
  • In religion: [we] give him praises
  • Congenial appreciation: I will give thanks to you
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  • I have never heard “We give him praises” in a religious context or otherwise. There’s “sing someone’s praises” but that is an idiom and not quite the same thing.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 23 at 22:03
  • I think there are a lot of examples. I only tried to provide a variety that might resonate with Joji. I’ve seen the phrase w/o the “we” and sometimes used with “you” as the 2nd person plural and have also seen it singular, but I like your example as well.
    – Mike
    Apr 23 at 22:08
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I think people are overthinking it with plural-only nouns etc.

It is an idiom, used in an exclamatory way, that has been established in the plural. Simple as that.

Etymologically, the phrase means "to share expressions of joy with/for someone". Therefore I assume it would sound weird if only a singular expression of joy was offerred, and therefore the expression got established in the plural.

The word does indeed exist in the singular, and is completely valid when referring to the act itself, as opposed to being used in an exclamatory manner. E.g., see: Self-congratulation.

I hasten to note that it is the same in Greek ( «συγχαρητήρια» ), which translates etymologically exactly the same way. If you were to say it in the singular, people would look at you funny, as if you'd held back in your expressions of joy to only one.

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