Why is the Word Pants Plural?

Or trousers for that matter, if you’re from the UK. I went with pants for the title simply because most of you, dear readers are American. Anyway, the burning question: why are these words so brazenly plural when they clearly refer to a single garment?

The answer is actually fairly straightforward. Trousers is plural partly because of a fairly simple misunderstanding. The word is derived from the old Irish word triubhas, which was singular, and referred to close-fitting shorts. The S at the end led people to assume it was a plural word, thus leading to trousers being plural.

There’s another, much simpler reason that these words, and other related ones such as shorts, jeans, tights, knickers, and drawers are all plural: originally each leg was a separate garment, put on individually, and tied together with a belt or rope. At some point some genius decided to unite the two legs, but the word remained plural anyway.

If it bugs you that we use a plural word for a singular garment by the way, don’t worry. Doubtless hipsters will soon bring individual single-leg trousers back into fashion, and we can strut around the town safe in the knowledge that our vocabulary matches our appearance.

11 thoughts on “Why is the Word Pants Plural?

  1. This issue does lead to errors when speaking in German. The German words for trousers, underpants and spectacles are:


    All feminine singular.

    Even now, I sometimes make a slip of the tongue, referring to them in the plural. “Ich mag meine Brille. Die sind cool.” it takes a while to wash the English brain out…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha! That last paragraph. And I’ve wondered this too. When I go to China I have to second-guess myself when translating “a pair of pants” because in Chinese it is a singular object, but they also use measure words, so one wouldn’t say “a pair”. Rather, since the object is long-shaped, one would use the measure word “tiao” or say “yi tiao kuzi” (pants) which is the same measure word for river (“yi tiao he” or “a river”.) If I were to translate it directly and use the word “shuang” (as used “a pair of chopsticks”) I would be mistaken and corrected.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well that’s an interesting explanation…Thanks! Wouldn’t it be weird though, if we started saying ‘trouser’. Just doesn’t sound proper at all, even though English language ‘rules’ dictate that it would be the proper – umm, format. In my language it’s also plural. Housut – farkut. The ‘T’ being the same as the English ‘S’.


  4. Neither a misunderstanding of an Irish word nor the suggestion that trouser legs were once separate items explain why jeans, shorts, underpants, tongs, sunglasses, tweezers, binoculars, pliers, scissors, tights, headphones or many other such terms are grammatically plural.

    All of these objects display a bilateral symmetry and a feature of English is to refer to such items as a pair of ……s. This practice is by analogy with pairs of shoes, gloves, socks, eyes, boots, skis and other similar pairs where each half of the pair does have a meaningful singular form and a separate physical existence but is always used in conjunction with the other half. This can lead to the term “pair of” being omitted in both cases and this leads, with the first set of items, to an essentially singular object being grammatically plural.

    This sometimes provokes confusion: a pair of bicycle forks would normally be taken to mean the front fork and the rear fork. Because, however, each fork is bilaterally symmetrical, it would not be unreasonable to refer to the front (pair of) forks when describing the front fork. Certainly, the forks on a fork lift truck are plural even though each of them is not individually a fork. A common error is to refer to a pair of compasses (used for drawing a circle) as “a compass” (which is used to determine magnetic north).


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