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,
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.
Happy Wednesday, Everyone!