English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The roll of the dice

Q: When an indeterminate number of dice are rolled, does one say “die roll” or “dice roll”? I play a lot of tabletop role-playing games and some authors tend towards one usage, some the other. I would like to be correct in my own usage. (I favor “die roll.”)

A: Traditionally, the word “dice” refers to either a game played with dice, or to more than one of the cubes used in such a game.

While traditionalists still prefer “die” for just one of the cubes, many usage authorities now define “dice” as one or more.

If an indeterminate number of dice are to be rolled, you ask, is it a “die roll” or a “dice roll”? We would say “dice roll.”

In the phrase “dice roll,” the noun “dice” is being used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to modify the noun “roll.” We think the word “dice” in that phrase can be viewed two ways: either as a game played with dice or as one or more of the cubes used in the game.

The phrase “die roll,” in our opinion, is a legitimate but stuffy way of referring to the roll of a single cube.

However, the popular online dictionary Wiktionary notes that “die” is “predominant among tabletop gamers.” If the phrase “die roll” is part of the specialized language used by the gamers you play with, then feel free to use it yourself.

We haven’t used the singular “die” ourselves in this post because we use “dice” for both the singular and plural in the gaming sense. We’ll explain our thinking later, but let’s look first at the history of these words.

When the term showed up in early Middle English, the singular was “die” (originally spelled “dē” or “dee”), and the plural was “dice” (originally, “dēs” or “dees”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The plural showed up first in writing. The earliest OED citation is from Robert Mannyng’s Middle English translation (circa 1330) of Roman de Brut, a verse history of Britain by the Norman poet Wace:

“Somme pleide wyþ des and tables” (“Some played with dice and tables”). Backgammon was once referred to as “tables.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the singular is from Confessio Amantis (circa 1393), a Middle English poem by John Gower: “The chaunce is cast upon a dee, / But yet full oft a man may see.”

However, the OED also has citations dating from the late 1300s for a Middle English version of “dice” used in the singular.

The first example, from a 1388 act of Parliament, uses the plural “dyces,” suggesting the existence of a singular “dyce.”

The next example, a Latin-English translation from around 1425, is clearer: “Hic talus, dyse.” (Talus means “ankle bone” as well as “dice.” The Romans made dice from the tali, or ankle bones, of animals.)

So is “die” or “dice” the singular today when used in the gaming sense? The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical principles, says “dice” is by far the dominant singular.

“The form dice (used as pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die,” the dictionary says.

Oxford Dictionaries online, a standard (or general) dictionary, says this in a usage note:

“Historically, dice is the plural of die, but in modern standard English, dice is both the singular and the plural: throw the dice could mean a reference to two or more dice, or to just one. In fact, the singular die (rather than dice) is increasingly uncommon.”

However, other standard dictionaries are divided about the oneness of “dice” when the term is used in games. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says “die” is the singular and “dice” the plural. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says either “die” or “dice” can be singular.

Usage guides are also divided. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) rejects “dice” as “a false singular,” but Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) says: “The small cubes with faces bearing 1-6 spots used in games of chance are the dice (pl.); and one of them is called a dice.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language sides with Fowler’s: “Dice is etymologically the plural of die, but the latter is virtually no longer in use (outside the fixed phrase The die is cast), with dice reanalyzed as the lexical base: another dice ~ a pair of dice.”

We agree with the OED, Oxford Dictionaries, Fowler’s, and Cambridge that “dice” now is both singular and plural. However, we also believe that when at the gaming table, do as the gamers do.

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