The Grammarphobia Blog

Clothed minded

Q: It occurs to me that the clothes we wear above the waist are generally singular and those we wear below the waist are generally plural. Is there something interesting to say about this language peculiarity?

A: Yes, it does seem peculiar that clothes with two legs (or leg holes) are considered more “plural” than garments with two arms (or arm holes).

The English words for leggy items of clothing are generally plural nouns—“pants,” “jeans,” “shorts,” “trousers,” “breeches,” “overalls,” “long johns,” “drawers,” “briefs,” “panties,” “jodhpurs,” etc.—and they’re accompanied by plural verbs.

And the words for garments accommodating the arms are usually singular: “blouse,” “shirt,” “jacket,” “vest,” “coat,” “tank top,” “sweater,” “T-shirt,” “cardigan,” “pullover,” “blazer,” “parka,” “turtleneck,” “shell,” “camisole,” and so on.

We can’t explain why this is. Perhaps it’s because covering the arms isn’t always the chief function of what we wear on top. But covering the legs (or what’s between them) is the chief function of what we wear below the waist.

We touched on this subject in our blog a few years ago when a reader asked why his wife puts on a pair of panties but not a pair of bras.

Apart from the closet, English has many plural words—all of them representing a single item—for things with a two-ness about them.

Think of the two blades in a pair of “scissors” or “shears,” the two lenses in a pair of “eyeglasses” or “spectacles,” the two pincers in a pair of “tongs” or “pliers” or “tweezers.” Each of those words is a plural noun for a single item, and each is used with a plural verb.

Notice how we often refer to each of those items as a “pair” (like a pair of trousers or shorts) because of its double nature. Each represents one thing consisting of two connected parts.

On the other hand (and foot), we have plural nouns for pieces of clothing that are used in pairs but aren’t connected: “gloves,” “mittens,” “slippers,” “shoes,” “boots,” etc. These are all words for two things, not one, and they have singular counterparts: “glove,” “mitten,” and so on.

It’s been our experience that the people who use singular counterparts for words like “trousers” are usually in the clothing business: “This pant is 20% off!” … “A fabulous jean with tummy control” … “Would you like to see something in a matching trouser?”

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