Friday, September 21, 2007

Fish and Fruit

Fishes or fish?

Fruits or fruit?

Is there anything wrong with the following sentence?

We need to buy some fishes and fruits.

Let’s take a look first at fish. What’s the plural form of fish? While some dictionaries list the plural as fish or fishes, there is evidence that fishes is dying out (and we don’t mean fish stocks!). This is language change happening in our lifetime. Indeed, Collins Cobuild English Usage (CCEU) states that, ‘in modern English, the plural of fish is fish, not fishes’ (p. 196), while the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) observes that ‘Fish is the usual plural form. The older form, fishes, can be used to refer to different kinds of fish’. (Indeed, in older translations of the Bible, fishes is the preferred form, while fish is found in more recent translations.) This is presumably the result of speakers regularizing it by analogy with many other names of animals and fish used as food. Salmon and trout, for instance, never take the –s plural suffix: I love salmon/trout (food); He caught three salmon/trout.

Now, let’s look at fruit. According to CCEU, fruit is usually an uncountable noun (like tea/coffee/flour/oil/water); hence, some fruit is the usual expression. If we have to count, however, we can use partitives, e.g. a piece/slice/serving of fruit. The form fruits does exist, but it refers to ‘kinds of fruit’ (hence, it is like fishes) — this is why we refer to the durian as ‘the king of fruits’.

Thus, the sentence is more properly:

We need to buy some fish and some fruit.

In summary, fish is the usual plural form nowadays. Fruit is usually uncountable; hence we normally say either some fruit or two pieces of fruit. The forms fishes and fruits, however, have more specific meanings that are less often needed in everyday life.


Gillian said...

Yes... He fed five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish...

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Thanks! The genius we know as DAL told me of this website and we had a look together: