The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the “s” in “pants” out of style?

Q: I’ve been waging a losing battle over the creeping use of  “pant” vs. “pants.” As far as I’m concerned, “pant” is what a dog does on a hot day, not something I’d wear. If you feel I’m a cranky, persnickety nitpicker and should just start wearing skirts, I’ll abide by your ruling.

A: Keep your pants on. We’ve also noticed this use of “pant,” especially—perhaps exclusively—among people in the fashion world.

Anybody who shops, whether in stores or through catalogs or websites, will know what we mean. Apparently, plurals regularly drop when we shop. It’s enough to get one’s knicker in a twist.

And it’s not just a “pant” thing. Fashionistas are singularly using “jean” and “trouser” as well, along with “pajama,” “short,” “legging,” “brief,” “tight,” and “panty.”

Yes, “panty”! We’re reminded that we once answered a reader who asked why his wife put on a “pair of panties” but not a “pair of bras.”

Getting back to your complaint, this “s”-dropping tendency goes against the grain.

As we wrote on the blog in 2012, words for leggy items of clothing are generally plural—“pants,” “jeans,” “shorts,” “trousers,” “breeches,” “overalls,” “long johns,” “drawers,” “briefs,” “panties,” “jodhpurs,” etc.

The same goes for footwear, which more obviously comes in twos: “shoes,” “boots,” “slippers,” “espadrilles,” “sneakers,” “socks,” “moccasins,” and so on. All of these wearable plurals are accompanied by plural verbs.

So what’s up with the shift to the singular in reference to a pair?

It would appear that this is the fashion industry’s notion of creative marketing. An unusual word—like “pant” where the customer expects “pants”—is supposed to make us think the item so named is more stylish (or “on trend”).

In Fabulously Fashionable (2012), her novel spoofing the British fashion world, Holly McQueen comments on this linguistic tendency.

“These people do not speak about clothes the way ordinary people do,” she writes. A word like “pants” is, “more often, a pant. Similarly, shoes are always a shoe; jeans are usually a jean.”

And in 2013, Rachel Braier wrote about this singular trend in the Guardian. The letter “s,” Braier writes, “appears to have become redundant in the lexicon of fashion and style. It’s as if an edict has been issued from Vogue HQ banning its use.”

Does this usage have a future? Braier has this to say: “Well, you may think, what’s the problem? The world of fashion is all about novelty and affectation—this won’t filter down into everyday parlance.” But, she warns, “Don’t be so sure.”

As she explains, “The whole raison d’être of fashion is to influence—it’s why we no longer wear a boot-cut jean or a square-toed shoe (see how naturally I’m doing it). If fashion dictates that we no longer need plurals, ‘s’ will be condemned to the linguistic discount bin quicker than you can say ‘boho-inspired shrug.’ ”

In fact, the usage is beginning to influence some lexicographers.

Of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, three include entries for the singular noun “pant” for clothing, but they note that it’s “usually” or “often” used in the plural.

One of the three, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), adds this: “The use of the singular pant is largely confined to the fields of design, textiles, and fashion.”

The dictionary gives this example: “The stylist recommended that the model wear a pant with a checkered print.”

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the singular “pant” is largely confined to the rag trade. Its description says the singular is “in current sense chiefly used in the retail clothing industry.”

But, as OED citations show, this retail use of “pant” isn’t new. Apart from a lone sighting in 1832, the OED‘s examples begin with uses in the garment industry in the early 1890s.

Here’s a citation from Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi, an 1893 book by Hubert Anthony Shands:

“Pant … an abbreviation of pantaloons, used by clerks in dry-goods stores. They say: ‘I have a pant that I can sell you,’ etc. Of course, pants is a well-known abbreviation, but I think pant is rather a new word.”

From the late 19th century onward, the singular usage appeared steadily in retailing, as in this line from a 1962 L. L. Bean catalog: “A practical and well made pant for general sportswear.”

So in the case of “pant,” the use of the singular isn’t new to the clothing business—just perhaps more widespread lately.

And, as we’ve written before on the blog, the singular is commonly used in an adjectival way, as in “pantleg” and “pantsuit.”

As for the etymology, we can thank San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice, for the word  “pants,” according to the OED.

He was so identified with the city that Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was a rich miser known as Pantalone.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, etymologists say, French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as pantaloons in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. The earliest Oxford example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the The Southern Literary Messenger:

“In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

Well, it’s time for us to walk our dogs, Pat in her flats and Stewart in his baggy pants.

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