In German you can say “eine Brille” and “eine Jeans”. Why do we use the plural form for these words in English? Why do we say “a pair of”?
The following English words end in -s and are considered to be plural.
- scissors – Schere
- pants/trousers – Hose
- glasses/spectacles – Brille
- shorts – Kurzhose
- pyjamas – Schlafanzug
- braces/suspenders – Hosenträger
- tights – Strumpfhose
- goggles – Schutzbrille
- pliers – Zange
- binoculars – Fernglas
- tongs – auch Zange, aber zum Grillen oder für den Salat
- tweezers – Pinzette
The reason why these words are considered to be “a pair” is due to their earlier use. They used to be made up of two parts which were put together. People that needed visual aid used a cut piece of glass for a lense, until someone got the idea to put two lenses together and make a pair of glasses. Before there were scissors joined at an axis, you had just “a pair of” blades.
There are a lot of English words like tweezers and tongs which have the same basic construction. They have two juxtaposed parts that move towards each other at a point.
Okay, so why are”jeans” considered a pair? The most common explanation is that “pantaloons” were once just two legs, which a man pulled on one leg at a time. These “legs” were held up by some kind of rope. Hmmm. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it makes a good story. A “pyjama” is a Persian word which means a loose-type of trousers. The English language adopted it, and funny thing is, we still made “pyjama” into “pyjamas”. Go figure! 🙂
The following sentences are corrected sentences from my classes, plus a few written by me to help illustrate the usage of these words.
- She wears jeans to work.
BUT NOT: She wears a jeans to work.
- I wear glasses.
BUT NOT: I wear a glasses.
- Give me some scissors.
BUT NOT: Give me a scissors.
- These pants are dirty.
BUT NOT: This pants is dirty.
- My teenage son wears braces on his teeth.
BUT NOT: My teenage son wears a braces on his teeth.
- These tights have a hole in them.
BUT NOT: This tights has a hole in it.
When does one say “A PAIR OF”?
If you’d like to emphasize that what you’re describing is one thing, then use “a pair of”; for example, a pair of glasses, a pair of scissors, a pair of trousers. Let’s take a look at the following sentences:
I’ll wear jeans to work. — Here you’re basically saying that you plan to dress casual to work.
I’ll wear a pair of jeans to work. — The emphasis is on “one” — “a pair”
These glasses are old. — Here the the emphasis is the plural. “These..are”
This pair of glasses is old. — The emphasis is the one thing. “This pair”
If you want to describe two or more of these things, simply put an -s on the end of “pair” to make “pairs”.
“A PIECE OF”
The same principle applies to “a piece of”, which is a small amount of something. You’re describing a small amount of something like cake, paper or chocolate. These are things called “collective nouns”, which can be countable or uncountable. Words like clay, wood, love and equipment are “mass nouns”, which have absolutely no countable form. We have to say “a piece of cake” to portion it up. This is also very useful in business where “pieces” can mean the number units (ordered) out of somebody’s inventory. Let’s take a look at why “a piece of” is needed in the following sentence.
I’d like another piece of chicken.
If what you want is another portion of chicken, then you’d want to say “a piece of”. If you say, “I’d like another chicken”, you’d get the whole chicken! This sounds funny to native English speakers since the word “chicken” is used for both the animal and the meat.
- Would you like another piece of pie? (Torte)
BUT NOT: Would you like another pie?
- My daughter has two pairs of leggings.
BUT NOT: My daughter has two leggings.
- Can you hand me that pair of safety goggles? (Schutzbrille)
BUT NOT: Can you hand me that safety goggles?
- Would you like a piece of gum?
BUT NOT: Would you like a gum?
- How many pieces of chicken do you want?
BUT NOT: How many chickens do you want?
- My daughter needs a pair of tights for her dance class.
BUT NOT: My daughter needs a tights for her dance class.
- Did you buy another pair of jeans?
BUT NOT: Did you buy another jeans?
- I need a new pair of sunglasses.
BUT NOT: I need a new sunglasses.
- You need a pair of pliers to fix that pipe.
BUT NOT: You need a pliers to fix that pipe.
- I need a piece of paper to write on.
BUT NOT: I need a paper to write on.
- There’s a piece of glass stuck in the bottom of my shoe.
BUT NOT: There’s a glass stuck in the bottom of my shoe.
- How many pieces of luggage will you take with you on the trip?
BUT NOT: How many luggages will you take with you on the trip?
- I need a big a piece of cloth to make this dress.
BUT NOT: I need a big cloth to make this dress.