Saturday, May 17, 2008

Making Plurals from Fs

The other day, someone told me something about “chieves of staff”. My brain refused to process the rest of the sentence, after such flagrant misuse of a word, so I'm afraid I can't give you the context.

In reaction, I thought I'd sit down and write a public service announcement on making plurals out of words that end in the “f” sound. Then I began to consider the applicable rules. If a word ends in a double f, you make it plural by adding an s. Staff becomes staffs. That seemed pretty simple.

Unfortunately, other words don't cooperate so nicely. A thief and his cohorts can be called thieves, but my friend should have made those department heads into chiefs. Many roofs were damaged in the hail storm. The cow's hooves left dimples across the pasture. Oh, dear.

Most of the web sites I visited in researching this question simply suggested removing the -f or -fe at the end of a word and adding -ves. That's terrific, when it works. It clearly doesn't solve the whole problem, however.

I've decided that no simple rule exists for remembering which words ending with an f sound should retain that sound in the plural form. What's a writer to do? Practice using such words, and look them up from time to time. Don't assume that you know the correct form, especially when it's a word you don't often use. Set an example for lazier writers and help end f abuse, once and for all.