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Why not “one headquarter”?

Q: To my ear, “one headquarter” sounds better than “one headquarters.” Why is the plural “headquarters” used for both the singular and the plural?

A: When the term first showed up in English in the early 1600s, it was “headquarter” (or, rather, “head quarter”), but the “s”-less singular is rarely seen now except in South Asian English.

We’ll have more to say later about the history of “headquarter”/“headquarters,” but first let’s look at how the word is generally used in contemporary English.

Today, “headquarters” is a noun that’s plural in form but can be used with either a singular or a plural verb.

As Pat writes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd. ed.), “headquarters” is one of those words, like “series” and “species,” that ends in “s” but can mean either one thing or more—a base or bases.

She gives this example: “Gizmo’s headquarters was designed by Rube Goldberg. The two rival companies’ headquarters were on opposite sides of town.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has these modern examples of “headquarters” used in each way:

singular: “Hundreds of Home Office staff should be moved out of London because a new headquarters is too small to accommodate them.” (From the Daily Telegraph, 2004.)

plural: “He set up two headquarters, one to control Japan … and the other to command U.S. forces in the Far east.” (From Richard B. Finn’s book Winners in Peace, 1992.)

Now let’s look at the history of “headquarter” and “headquarters.”

Both of these forms showed up in written English in the first half of the 17th century, with “headquarter” used in the singular sense and “headquarters” used initially in the plural sense.

But within a few years, “headquarters” was being used in both singular and plural contexts —or, as the OED puts it, the plural form “headquarters” was being used “with pl. or sing. concord.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “headquarter” used in the singular sense is from a 1622 issue of the Continental Newes that refers to military forces “about to draw away their Ordnance into their head quarter.”

The OED’s earliest example of “headquarters” used as a plural is in a 1639 issue of a newsletter, Curranto This Weeke From Holland: “This Campe is divided into 2 Head-quarters, on one side commandeth Monsieur de Lambert, and on th’other side Colonell Gassion.”

And the first example of the plural form used in a singular sense is from a 1644 issue of the Weekly Account: “The Hoptonian Forces are as yet at their head quarters at Winchester.”

In the 1500s and 1600s, the dictionary points out, other Germanic languages had singular forms for the singular sense: German Hauptquartier (1588 or earlier), Swedish huvudkvarter (1658), Dutch hoofdkwartier (1688 or earlier).

Why did the plural form “headquarters” come to be used in English for both singular and plural senses?

Perhaps because the plural “quarters” was being used around the same time for a singular place of residence, as in this example from Every Man in His Humor, a 1616 play by Ben Jonson: “Turnebull, White-chappell, Shore-ditch, which were then my quarters.”

As we’ve said earlier, the singular “headquarter” is rarely seen now except in South Asian English. Here are some recent examples from military and corporate writing:

“My headquarter was at Chandhi Mandir which is easily the best laid out military cantonment in the country.” (From S. K. Sinha’s book A Soldier Recalls, 1992.)

“Another network was established by National Informatics Centre … whose headquarter is at Delhi.” (From Computer Technology for Higher Education, 1993, by Sarla Achuthan and others.)

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