-f ending of nouns
In my grammar class today, the students were wondering why the plural
of chief is chiefs, yet the plural
of most words ending in -f is -ves,
such as thief --> thieves. Any explanations?
Jane C. Kirsch
It's true that many nouns ending in -f in the singular
have a -ves ending for the plural.
Actually, however, there are three classes of nouns ending in -f, according
to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University
- Class 1 – Nouns that always change their endings to -ves.
Examples are calf, elf, knife, leaf, life, loaf, self, sheaf, shelf,
thief, wife and wolf.
- Class 2 – Nouns that may or may not change their endings to
-ves. Examples are dwarf (dwarfs, dwarves), half,
handkerchief, hoof, roof, scarf, and wharf.
- Class 3 – Nouns that don’t change their endings to -ves;
they retain the -f ending and add just the plural
-s. Examples are belief, chief, cliff, muff, oaf, photograph, proof,
safe, tough, waif.
This reference notes that sometimes the voiced -ves, as in “handkerchief”
occurs in speech in Class 2, but in writing—as in handkerchiefs
and roofs—as Class 3.