The Grammarphobia Blog

An eye-opening plural

Q: Which of these sentences is the correct one? (1) “Cyclopses’ eyes are huge.” (2) “Cyclopses’ eye is huge.” The first sentence makes sense, but it may cause confusion because some readers may not know that each Cyclops has only one eye.

A: If you’re writing for Americans, we wouldn’t recommend either one.

The proper noun “Cyclops,” for the one-eyed giant from Greek mythology, doesn’t form its plural in the usual way in American English.

It’s “Cyclopes,” not “Cyclopses,” according to American dictionaries. (British dictionaries are more flexible, listing “Cyclopes,” “Cyclopses,” and sometimes “Cyclops” as acceptable plurals.)

Here are the correct American spellings and pronunciations for the various forms:

Singular: Cyclops (pronounced SIGH-klops).

Singular possessive: Cyclops’s (pronounced SIGH-klops-iz).

Plural: Cyclopes (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Plural possessive: Cyclopes’ (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Now, both of the following sentences are correctly written for an American audience, but #2 probably does a better job of getting your meaning across:

(1) “Cyclopes’ eyes are huge” (plural possessive).

(2) “The Cyclops’s eye is huge” (singular possessive).

As you suggest, sentence #1 doesn’t convey the notion that each Cyclops has only one eye. Sentence #2 does get that idea across, and it can be construed as generic—that is, true of every Cyclops.

(If you’re writing for a British audience, the plural possessive in #1 could be Cyclopes’, Cyclopses’, or Cyclops’.)  

If you’re curious about the use of the definite article in #2, we wrote a post in 2009  about the use of “the” with a singular noun to refer generically to all members of a class:

“We can correctly say either ‘A goat is a four-footed animal’ or ‘The goat is a four-footed animal,’” the blog post said.

“But the tendency is to use ‘the’ when referring to a typical example of its class. And this tendency is stronger the more specific we are about it: ‘The goat is remarkably nimble and sure-footed.’ We don’t mean a particular goat; we mean all goats.”

You can apply this principle to the Cyclops too.

The name, by the way, came into English in the 1500s from late Latin, which got it from the Greek Kuklops (literally, round-eyed). The Greek roots are kuklos (circle) and ops (eye).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Cyclops” as “one of a race of one-eyed giants in ancient Greek mythology, who forged thunderbolts for Zeus.”

The OED’s earliest example of the word in written English is from a version of Virgil’s Aeneid translated by Gawin Douglas sometime before 1522:

“A huge pepill we se / Of Ciclopes cum hurland to the port.” (“We saw a huge crowd / Of Cyclopes come rushing to the shore.”)

Where did the plural “Cyclopes” come from? The OED suggests the unusual plural may have come from French, in which Cyclopes is the plural of Cyclope.

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