English language Etymology Usage

Alphabet soup: ABC or ABCs?

Q: Why is “alphabet” singular and “ABCs” plural, yet they mean essentially the same thing? And wouldn’t “learning your ABC, etc.” be more accurate than “learning your ABCs”?

A: English is a big, stretchy language with many ways to refer to people and things. It’s not uncommon to have singular and plural nouns or noun phrases that mean pretty much the same thing.

For example, your “savings” may be called your “nest egg.” And the people tuned in to a radio program may be the “listeners” or the “audience.”

A blogger may have “followers” or a “following.” A museum may have “statues” or “statuary.” An orchestra may have “violins, violas, cellos, and double basses” or a “string section.”

And, of course, many nouns can be both singular and plural: “moose,” “fish,” “aircraft,” “species,” “offspring,” “deer,” “series,” and so on.

English has evolved over more than 1500 years and has collected a lot of idioms along the way. Not every idiomatic expression can be interpreted literally (as in “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “he reached for the stars”).

Broadly speaking, an idiom is simply a peculiarity of language. It’s an expression or some characteristic of speech that’s peculiar to a language, a region, a dialect, or a group of people.

But let’s get back to your question about “ABC,” a word with roots in Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In those days, the alphabet was referred to by its first four letters, not its first three. The OED’s earliest examples of the word in Old English are spelled abecede.

As for “ABC” itself, the term was singular when it entered Middle English in the early 1300s (spelled abece in Oxford’s earliest example).

In fact, the OED has 15 examples of “ABC” used in this sense and only one is plural, from a 1961 translation of Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech in 1953:

“Who among us has not learned his ABC’s in the little public schoolhouse?”

However, we’ve found many earlier plural examples in Google Books, including this one from an 1898 report by the New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction:

They receive in one room pupils of all ages and all degrees of advancement, from ABC’s upward, sometimes even to algebra and Latin.”

Standard dictionaries now describe the term as either singular or plural—singular in the UK and usually plural in the US.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online has this singular example: “He’s learning his ABC at school.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this plural example: “learned her ABCs when she was three years old.”

Here’s how the OED defines “ABC” in this sense: “The alphabet. Freq. with reference to the teaching or learning of this, now esp. in to know one’s ABC. Also in pl. in same sense.”

Over the years, the term “ABC” has taken on other meanings: the rudiments of something (late 1300s), a book for teaching children the alphabet or reading (mid-1400s), and something simple or straightforward (late 1600s).

The word “alphabet” didn’t show up in English until the until the 1400s, according to citations in the OED, though it’s ultimately derived from a Hellenistic Greek word made up of the ancient Greek letters alpha and beta.

So in a way “alphabet” is another way of writing “AB,” and “learning your alphabet” doesn’t make any more sense literally than “learning your ABC” or “learning your ABCs.” But as we’ve said, not every idiomatic usage can be interpreted literally.

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