The plural of corn

Joanna and I love language, and many of our conversations and inside jokes tend to drift toward wordplay and linguistic quirks. Weeding corn the other day, I came up with an especially interesting grammatical oddity that might be of interest. Perhaps one of the several English professors that read this have an explanation?

Consider that, in English, there are generally three kinds of plurals. Either you add an “s” (road, roads), you change the word (mouse, mice), or nothing changes (deer, deer). But what about a word like “corn”? Easy, right? It’s like deer; there’s no such thing as corns, at least when talking about the grain.

But now consider the whole sentence: “Look at all this corn”. Even when it’s plural, it’s singular. This corn, not these corn. Implied is some modifier, like this patch of corn. We don’t say look at “this deer”, implying a herd. Talking it over, we realized this is true for almost all grain products. Corn, wheat, rye, etc… no one ever says “look at these wheat” in the way they would say “look at these tomatoes”. Or if they do, it’s only with a modifier like “look at these wheat plants“.

Thinking it over more, I realized it’s a grammatical structure used for many nouns describing small particles always handled in bulk. Consider that “sand” and “gravel” work the same way; who grabs a handful at the beach and says “look at these sands” the way they might “look at these pebbles”? “Get those rocks off my lawn” is fine, but “get those gravels off my lawn” sounds absurd. Implied is “grains of”, but it’s never spoken and ends up feeling very strange grammatically.

Can anyone think of other instances where a noun is plural but used in the singular, even when referring to just a few of the noun? And does anyone have an idea about why this usage would have evolved just in this instance?

2 thoughts on “The plural of corn

  1. Don't know if it's a rule (I'm not a grammarian), but seems to be a count issue. Gravel. Corn. Sand. Plurals expressed as singulars.

  2. Picking up on Jeff's comment, you're picking out words that appear singular in structure but are functioning as plurals. Take your corn example. If you were eating sweet corn, would ask somebody to pass you a corn? Your host may have made corn, but you'd probably ask for an ear of corn or some such thing. In that way I'm flipping the question back at you and ask if any of your words here are ever used in the singular! Would you ever say gravel if there were just one piece? Sand? etc?I think at the root of this is an understanding that some thing occur in large quantity, and that quantity itself can be treated like a singular (i.e. a single group… like a band is a singular word for a collection of many individuals).