Etymology Usage


Q: My colleague and I work in the apparel industry and are designing packaging for socks. I think the packaging should read “6 Pair,” but he prefers “6 Pairs.” Who is right? Or are we both right?

A: Our vote goes for “6 Pairs,” a choice no usage expert would quibble with.

But some language authorities say either “pair” or “pairs” may be used here. And the “pair” usage can be defended on etymological grounds.

We’ll present the evidence and let you be the judge.

Most usage guides recommend “pairs” in a situation like this, and that includes Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), and Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.).

Here’s the advice in Woe Is I: “If you’re talking about one thing that just happens to have two parts (like a pair of shoes), treat pair as singular: One pair of shoes is black. But add another pair and you have pairs: Two pairs are brown.”

Fowler’s agrees: “The pl. form pairs is desirable after a numeral (e.g. seven pairs of jeans). The type seven pair of jeans is non-standard, at least in Br.E [British English].”

And here’s Garner’s: “The preferred plural of pair is pairs. In nonstandard usage, pair often appears as a plural.”

So our advice is to use “pairs” in a situation like this: “Each package contains six pairs of socks.”

Now for the dissenting voices, those that would not rule out “six pair.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “The usual plural is pairs, when there is no preceding number or indicator of number (as several).” It gives as an example “conflicting pairs of truths.”

But M-W adds: “When a number or indicator of number precedes pair, either pair or pairs may be used.” It gives examples including “six pair of pants” and “three pairs of oars.”

Another source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), says that while “pairs” is the more common plural form, “pair” is not incorrect.

In a usage note, American Heritage says “pair” or “pairs” can be used after a number other than one, “but the plural is now more common: She bought six pairs (or pair) of stockings.”

As for the etymology, the word “pair” first showed up in English around 1300, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from Old French via Anglo-Norman.

The OED has Middle English citations dating from the early 1400s of “pair” used after numbers greater than one.

In fact, the dictionary says this usage “was until recently frequently used.”

It gives as an example “three pair shoes” and compares it to the German drei Paar Schuhe.

But Oxford notes that the usage “is now chiefly non-standard.”

This may or may not settle the argument. But no one will question the use of “pairs,” so it’s certainly the safer choice.

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