So Many Clothes

Yes, but how many? Wait, that doesn’t make sense, does it…?

Obviously you can’t say four clothes or five clothes. But why?

One obvious answer might be that clothes a singular noun. But… no. It couldn’t be. I mean, look at that S. And it never refers to an individual object, always multiple.

So yeah, it’s definitely a plural noun. But still, it’s a weird one. I can say five shirts or six shirts, but I can’t say six clothes. And more importantly, perhaps, I can say a shirt, but not a clothe. Hey that’s interesting. That must mean that…

… Yes, that clothes is a plural noun, but it doesn’t have a singular form. Hhm, that’s interesting. And rare! Though there are a few such interesting cases in English. Pants, scissors, glasses (as in eyewear).

It’s easy to see why they’re all plural only. They all come in pairs (kind of). And clothes, well, they’re usually part of a set. Of course you can buy a shirt or a jacket, but when we think of clothes, we think of an outfit made of many individual parts.

Of course, this word is a confusing one for learners of English. As it doesn’t really feel like a plural word, because it’s not countable, so when students want to say talk about their wardrobe, they often say something like clotheses.

And when you correct them, the next question is inevitably, Teacher what do I call one clothes?

That often stumps new teachers. Then after a while, they might have the confidence to tell the student that it’s an item of clothing. But you’ve really made it when you sit back, think about it, and realise that we never really say that either. If we want to refer to an individual item of clothing, we just use its name: a shirt, a jacket, a sock etc.

And of course that’s what most other languages do too. Think about a time in your life whn you had to refer to a single item of clothing without naming it. Don’t take too long though, because it probably never happened.

It’s funny though, how when we step back and look at our own language, or are learning another, we second guess ourselves and logic goes out the window. It’s like when you beceome aware that you’re breathing and then have to consciously keep doing it. If you think about some aspect of language that comes naturally, that instinctive feel can just disappear.

Now excuse me, I have to go buy seven clotheses.

5 thoughts on “So Many Clothes

  1. It is a tough word. Maybe back when everyone wore togas and your garment was a cloth, two or more were clothes?
    I did learn about the “pair of pants” bit, though. Centuries ago they were actually two items, leg and hip covers, with strings at the top to tie to the man’s shirt or belt, with a flap at the front to cover the essentials. This was called a codpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was at a charity auction the other day, and the auctioneer kept announcing he was selling gift certificates for ‘breakfastses’, like they came in pairs like trousers–it was hilarious!

    Liked by 1 person

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