Like many English-speakers, I hesitate when faced with the necessity of discussing a single one of those dotted things that usually come in pairs; I say “die,” but I feel funny about it. Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry has a nice post on the topic, explaining how the plural -s went from voiceless to voiced but “remained voiceless in dice. Why?”

Well, apparently because people had stopped thinking of it as a plural and started thinking of it as a mass noun, much like corn and rice, so they stopped seeing the s sound on the end as the plural marker and started perceiving it as simply part of the word. Singular dice can be found back to the late 1300s, and when the sound change came along in the 1500s and voiced most plural –s endings, dice was left behind, with its spelling altered to show that it was unequivocally voiceless.

He discusses truce, bodice, pence, and other words, and in the comment thread John Cowan quotes a great Ambrose Bierce definition. Check it out. (Via Stan Carey’s Link love: language (41), which links to lots of other great stuff as well.)


  1. I too found that page via Stan’s link love, and enjoyed the historical background. It is, or at least was, a non-issue here though, because in the NZE I grew up with “dice” was always the singular term too. To say “die” was a dead giveaway that the speaker was either American, or affecting an Americanism, since the only time the word was heard was on TV, in American shows. Whether die as the singular of dice has made inroads into current NZE I don’t know.

  2. One die two dice is what I naturally say; one dice sounds really funny to me (central Mass., late 40s). When I was a kid I played a lot of strategy games and roleplaying games where the number of dice you rolled varied with the situation in the game, and I wonder if that has anything to do with it. Outside of that context — which excludes many popular games (e.g., Monopoly) where you always use the same number of dice — specifying the number of dice you need is not exactly a pressing concern for most people and might never come up in conversation.
    Interesting article, and that looks like it might be a fun blog to explore.

  3. Thanks for the link! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Me too. I had never read your blog, but will do so again.

  5. Kerry NZ says:

    Dice is still dominant in NZ for the singular – die is only used by pedants.

  6. I’d guess that most of us (except Ken) have very little experience with one die/dice, and so we have little reason to refer to just one. Most common games require two, Yahtzee requires five (?), and you would always hang two, never one, from your rear-view mirror. Think of the symbolism.
    Question: what to tool-and-die people say. Presumably they say one die but is the plural /dais/ or /daiz/? It’s the latter, I suspect.

  7. D Sky Onosson says:

    Singular die for me, and I’ve honestly never thought it was any stranger than mouse/mice. I didn’t realize it wasn’t common outside N. America.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Can’t speak for Ken but in the long-ago context in which I would have had pragmatic reasons to use a singular in conversation (Dungeons & Dragons, circa ’78-’81) there was a further ambiguity in that “dice” could be and were of various polyhedral shapes not limited to the standard cube. So “d6” (pron. dee-six) was in use to some extent as the unambiguous singular for the object under discussion here.
    Oddly enough, I see from their website that the current proprietors of Cosmic Wimpout (sort of like Yahtzee-for-hippies? I played a bit in college) refer to the sets of five dice (with non-standard symbols on them) as “cubes” as if “dice” would be insufficiently specific.
    Note, however, that if “dice” really were a standard mass noun there would presumably be a standard phrase usable for individuation, akin to “grain of sand” or “piece of furniture.” Plus, you can say in e.g. a Yahtzee context “five dice” where you can’t say “five scissors” or “five trousers” (or if you can, what is implied is five pairs, not two and a half pairs).

  9. dearieme says:

    A Chancellor of the Exchequer was mocked a few years ago for mentioning, in his Budget speech, “one pence”.
    What about foot/feet? When I was a etc etc, it was common to hear someone say “That’s four foot long” or “six inch” but never, that I remember, “four yard”. But you would hear “That’s a four mile walk”, a twenty acre field and so forth.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, it’s not “full fathoms five,” is it?

  11. The Nine Inch Nails. – That was a pretext to insert this interesting but not exactly on-topic article about what it’s like being a freelance journalist at the London Daily Mail.

  12. For me:
    a four mile walk, not a four miles walk
    I went four miles, not I went four mile
    a six foot fence rather than a six feet fence
    the tree grew three feet rather than the tree grew three foot
    a forty acre field but not a fort acres field
    he bought forty acres rather than he bought forty acre
    and so on

  13. Units of measure in the singular with a number is archaic, poetic, or obsolete. But when a noun modifies another noun, singularity is standard: we say doghouse, not dogs house, even if it houses several dogs.

  14. Units of measure in the singular with a number is archaic, poetic, or obsolete.
    That’s not right, John. For instance we construction folk do it (with -foot & -inch) all the time. And yes in the USA too. Not with metric, though; so perhaps it is on its way out.

  15. Incidentally, it’s not originally singular—it’s the Old English genitive plural.

  16. dearieme says:

    Is “yard” special? Soccer goals were “eight yards by eight foot”, in the lingo of my youth.

  17. Maybe “foot” is special. I can’t see “six inch long” or “six yard long”, but I can see “six foot long”. Or “six foot wide” or “six foot tall”, for that matter.
    “Six mile long” maybe, or maybe not.
    I wonder if this way of using “foot” is at all influenced by the conveniently brief expression “six foot two”, “five foot three” etc., where the second number is inches.

  18. David Fried says:

    The takeaway: Never say “die.”

  19. Yes, maybe foot is special.
    it’s the Old English genitive plural
    Is that why you could say either “the nine-inch nails” or “the nails of nine inches in length”? Is that genitive? I’m getting confused.

  20. Incidentally, it’s not originally singular—it’s the Old English genitive plural.
    Hat, I’m having some pronoun trouble. What is not originally singular?

  21. Noetica says:

    I say either for the singular, depending on the register and the audience. But I strongly prefer die. *”The dice is cast”? I think not.
    The verb form indicates what is most natural in common or kitchen English: *”Die the turnips and add to the broth”? Nah. And “dice the turnips” can’t be from the plural form; we would not say: *”Cubes the turnips and add to the broth.” (SOED at “cube, v.”: “3 Cut into small cubes; dice. M20.”)
    Part of what is going on seems to be that the niche /daj/ is already occupied by the verbs die and dye, and the noun dye, right?

  22. I was playing D&D around the same time as J.W. Brewer and I recall the d6 usage as well, but more often I was playing the kind of strategy games that had a map, hundreds of little pieces (square-shaped pieces of cardboard that we called “counters”), and dozens of pages of rules. The dice in these games were almost always six-sided. I can’t verify it now but I’m sure the rules made the one die two dice distinction and we picked it up from there. With games like Monopoly or Yahtzee, there was an oral tradition: you learned how to play from other people and probably never read the rules. With strategy games, not only did you have to read the rules to learn how to play (because so few people played them) but you had to refer to them constantly (because they were often ridiculously complicated).

  23. What is not originally singular?
    The apparent singular in constructions like “five foot tall.”

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Noetica: “dice the turnips” can’t be from the plural form; we would not say: *”Cubes the turnips and add to the broth.”
    “Dice” and “cube” here are from verbs which are derived (by conversion, without other change) from the nouns. The verb “dice” ‘to cut into dice-like pieces’ is from a now plural noun (like “people”), rather than a plural form of a noun, since it has become unanalyzable for the majority of speakers, as detailed by several commenters above. “Cubes” could not be the base for a verb, since it is obviously a plural form, transparently analyzable as cube + -s. Only the basic, singular cube can be used in this role. Similarly, as someone wrote above, in compound formation the added (first) noun is the basic (singular) form, eg toothbrush not *teethbrush, or oatmeal not *oatsmeal. This is not a matter of logic (nobody brushes just one tooth) but of the morphological structure that English shares with its Germanic relatives (eg in German Zahnbrüste ‘toothbrush’, while “teeth” is Zähne).

  25. Noetica says:

    Sure, Marie-Lucie. I find no discord between our views.
    To people (LME, from French peupler) is interesting and perhaps harder to account for, since as a plural people is anomalous more in the manner of cattle, not in the manner of mice or of pease. (A cat does not mice, it mouses.)
    SOED records a second verb die, from the early 18C: “Provide with a die; shape using a die.” Dieing is given for the participle.

  26. Ah yes, those would be the Zähne that the Haifisch wears in his Gesicht.
    As for people v., it is plainly derived from singular people n. ‘folk, populus‘.

  27. Noetica says:

    it is plainly derived from singular people
    OK. And that makes it fit in a less plain manner with the central case looked at here: dice. Note that to people does not mean “to supply with a people”, but “to supply with people”.
    If we made a verb meaning “to supply with cattle”, would it be to cattle, to cow, to ox, or what? (To invaccinate ☺? Already taken, according to OED. To vacciplete.)

  28. When you make an integrated circuit, you dice the silicon wafer with a dicer, and then each die is mounted on a lead frame and connected using a die bonder.

  29. Noetica says:

    Hmm. Cowherd, cow-herder, etc.; but cowman is rare and cattleman is common. Cowboy, but *cattleboy?
    The Diceman, not The Dieman. Also huntsman, not *huntman; batman and batsman have distinct meanings. But those are horse of different colours.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Noetica: I like your comment about to people.
    In French, the word peuple, as in un peuple ‘a population, nation, ethnic group, etc’, le peuple ‘the population, especially the mass of the people as opposed to the upper classes’, are always singular. But in (at least British) English, collective nouns referring to some human groups, like family or committee can be used in a plural sense (as in The family were at church, an example I learned many years ago), and this is probably what happened with people, which went from a singular collective noun to a plural one, now on its way to replace persons, at least when no precise number is specified.

  31. Two cows
    Two cattle?
    Two head of cattle?
    When you playfully pull someone’s trousers down, you pants them, you don’t pant them.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Noetica: Cowboy, cattleman, etc: in such cases, once a word is formed and becomes current, there is no need to make up a rival one. But different countries or regions needing a word for the same thing might independently make up different words.
    I don’t know what a batsman does. As for huntsman, I have no idea why the -s is there.

  33. gunman

  34. The OED says that huntsman, batsman (the cricket equivalent of a batter), craftsman, tradesman, bondsman, frontiersman, helmsman, headsman (cf. headman), herdsman (formerly herdman, but changed when herd in the same sense was lost save in cowherd, shepherd, swineherd), kinsman, linesman (cf. lineman), marksman, oarsman, salesman, sportsman, statesman, swordsman, townsman, tribesman, clansman, woodsman, yachtsman are all derived from the genitive form of the first noun: thus huntsman < hunt’s man, and so on. Some of these alternate with non-genitive forms having the same meaning: bondman, oarman, townman. Since the ‘s genitive is now a clitic rather than an inflection (that umbrella is the young lady I go with’s, e.g.), such compounds can no longer be made.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for the research, JC. I thought of the genitive, since obviously huntsman could not include hunts as a plural. I guess the s-less words, such as fireman and policeman, are much more recent. Gunman is interesting, since (as far as I know) it means “man using a gun to commit a crimeof violence”, not “gun aficionado” or “gun dealer” which would be plausible meanings.

  36. According to the OED, the original meaning of gunman was simply ‘person armed with or using a gun’ as opposed to a bow, sword, or pike: “not only a penman, but a gunman, a rodman, and a horseman” (1888). (Rodman ‘fisherman’, by the way, alternates with rodsman.) Not until the 20th century does the association with illegal violence become the dominant one, perhaps because every soldier was by then a gunman in the older sense. The OED records a unique use in 1881 of gunmen ‘gun makers’.

  37. marksman: EtymOnlDic says this form with genitive -s is attested from 1600s while the form markman goes back a little further.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    There must have been a period when both forms were in use, until one won out over the other. This often happens, especially over a period of one or two generations, since young and old coexist but do not speak in exactly the same way.

  39. From people to populate:
    For years I’ve been annoyed that in (now older versions) of Windows, the Control Panel ‘add/remove software’ function informs the user that “The list is being populated.” Why couldn’t they have used ‘compiled’?
    Googling [ list populate ] returns 16 million hits. Languages evolve.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    this form with genitive -s is attested from 1600s
    Attested in the context of a dictionary simply means “occurring in a written document”. Some very common words are attested relatively late, because for a long time nobody bothered to used them in writing (or dared to do so: witness the “four-letter words”, some of them known to practically all speakers for centuries but until recently strongly discouraged in writing).
    Nowadays there are so many written documents, and such efficient searching technology, that it is possible to find the exact day some newly formed word appeared in print, or even was recorded in speech (see how many instances of this are documented regularly on Language Log). The farther back we go in history, the fewer documents have survived, so the fact that a word’s first appearance in a surviving written document occurred in a certain year does not mean that this was the first time it was used, it just means that we can be certain that it was used in that particular year (or even day and month, for instance in a dated letter or will).

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