Grammar Wednesday

A few weeks ago, I got this email from Suzanne (sorry it’s taken me so long to get to you, Sooza!):

Okay, I have one for you.  One of my colleagues and I were talking about the difference “fish” and “fishes.”  The rule is that if you are talking about multiple fish of the same species, the plural is “fish.”   When you are speaking about multiple fish of different species, you say “fishes.”   For example;


I caught six salmon last week.  Those fish take up a lot of space in my freezer!

The trawler boat found an area that was teeming with fishes – grouper, moray and sea bass.

I understand this is called an “irregular plural”.  Are there any others like this out there?

Thought this might be grist for your grammar mill.

Hope all is well with you and yours!
Love and blessings,
Sooza

This was a good question, and it took a fair bit of research to come up with my response.

I think, Sooza, that this answers itself intuitively – your assessment of the words to use to most clearly express an idea (is there one type of fish or more?) is exactly right, and all that I could find on the subject bears you out.  First, go here and see that this site explains the use of the words in almost exactly the way you did:

A group of fish of the same species are called fish. Two or more species of fish are called ‘fishes’.

None (and I mean literally none) of my grammar books addressed this question directly (and I even looked in the Lessons in English text that my mom gave me, which was published in 1880).  If a style guide addressed the pluralization of “fish” at all, it told me that the singular and the plural are the same word, much like deer, sheep, and politics.  I can’t, off the top of my head, come up with any other nouns that can pluralize the same way fish and fishes can, though I’ll keep the question in the back of my mind and update if any come to me.

For myself, I’d use fish and fishes the way you have; if I’m talking about one species of fish in a group, I’d use fish.  If I’m expressing something about a diverse group, I’d use fishes:

The fish in the tank are all guppies.

We saw many different fishes at the aquarium, but no dolphins. 

Thanks, Sooza!

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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15 Comments

Filed under Grammar, Questions

15 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I’m going to be picky so please feel free to delete me if you want. She didn’t actually ask if she was right about fish or why she asked if there were any others out there.

    Go on. Delete me. You know you want to.

  2. No, I don’t want to delete you, but yes, I did answer her question – I don’t think there are any others out there, but I said I’d keep thinking and update if I came up with any…

  3. Here is one: I would not write Jesus’s or Arkansas’s; however, because I am writing a book review about Du Bois, I have noticed over the years that “Du Bois’s” scholars like to write about “Du Bois’s” ideas. I too write about Du Bois’ ideas. But when I write about his ideas, the grammar is different.

    I am sure you have addressed this before on this blog,

  4. Here I thought “fishes” was just from “The Godfather” movies, as in “Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.” I see now that the Corleons were up on their irregular plurals.

  5. noncount nouns (also called mass nouns) and count nouns:
    http://www.bartleby.com/68/95/3795.html

    Some nouns can be both: fish, water, grain, salt are often noncount, but can be used as count nouns:
    many different fishes, the waters of the earth, many different grains, many different salts.

  6. I wonder of e-mail vs emails fit within the realm of this discussion? We’ve been having an interesting debate about the pluralization of this word on my blog. When I sought guidelines about irregular pluralization to bring to the discussion, I had the same experience as you. The handbooks and style-books don’t address it, except in a cursory fashion.
    ph

  7. Julia

    So would it be incorrect to always use “fish” and never “fishes”? I’ve never used “fishes” whether I’m talking about several different types of fish or not.

    I don’t talk about fish all that much, but I certainly want to be correct when the situation presents itself!

    As far as the question about E-mail vs. E-mails, my thought is that both are correct depending on the usage. When we speak of regular mail we do not use the plural “mails” because we have a separate word for the subcatagories of mail (letters, bills, etc.). We don’t really have the same kind of differentiation when it comes to electronic mail. We sometimes refer to an individual piece of E-mail as a message, but there are too many interpretations for the word “message” (instant message, phone message, text message, voice mail message, etc.) that we can’t really equate it to the use of “letters” with snail mail. Using this logic it would be correct to say, “My inbox is full of E-mail” AND “I have five E-mails in my inbox.” Of course no one looks to me to determine proper usage of new words, but this makes sense to me so I’m going to stubbornly stick to my guns!

  8. Thanks for this. I ran into a situation where a product description used the word, ‘fishes’, three times! I wanted to make sure all three were incorrect before I sent the description back. Turns out one was ok. Thanks again.

  9. irene

    what is the right term of using the word “mail” in plural form?

  10. Kiku

    What about ‘people’ vs ‘peoples’?

    • Patrick Sneyd

      Came across two book titles recently –
      A peoples’ history of America
      and
      A people’s history of America

      and both, apparently, are grammatically correct!!

  11. Patrick Sneyd

    fish fishes fish’s fishes’ …….

    I am working on a poem about a group of fish of the same species darting joyously about in the evening sea, having escaped anglers’ fishing lines and I have included the following line –
    No human tongue these fishes’ flesh will taste

    D’you think I’m correct?

  12. Jo

    What’s the rule on “tissue” as in body tissue.

    If bone is made up of two different types of tissue, do I say

    “bone is made up from two different types of tissue
    S?”

    or do I say

    “bone is made up from two different types of tisssue?

  13. ade

    Another one is ‘grass: grass: grasses’ for the same reasons you expressed above.

  14. Ms. H

    I was corrected today by a couple of students when I used the word “fishes” to explain their evolution. I pointed out to them the wording in the book states fishes and not fish. I’d always heard the word fishes but couldn’t explain why it was fishes and not just fish so now I will make sure to explain the difference tomorrow.

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