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I can't decide if the word 'clothes' is countable or uncountable. The dictionary only writes - plural.

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  • questions like this about English grammar or usage are off-topic in linguistics, but would be on-topic on either the ell or english stackexchange boards
    – Tristan
    Mar 11 at 10:51
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Clothes, like (eye)glasses, pants, scissors, &c., is a plurale tantum—a word that only occurs in the plural. Most pluralia tantum in English are things that naturally conceptually come in pairs (two lenses in glasses, two legs in pants, two scissor-halves in scissors), but there are plenty of others—clothes, riches, remains, &c. Whether they're count nouns or not depends on how you define count nouns versus mass nouns, but in English they're generally considered mass nouns—they certainly behave like mass nouns in that you need measure words when you actually count them (three pairs of pants, not three pants).

The reverse is a singulare tantum—a word that only occurs in the singular. In English all mass nouns that aren't pluralia tantum are singularia tantum, and almost all singularia tantum are mass nouns—the only exception I can think of is a shambles.

(Even though this question asks about an English word I feel it's in scope because it's about a grammatical concept, not a usage question.)

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  • Since most non-count nouns are invariably singular, it would make sense to include plural-only nouns like "clothes", "scissors" etc. in the count category. There are a fairly small number of non-count nouns that are invariably plural; these include "remains", "credentials", "genitals" and "proceeds".
    – BillJ
    Apr 5 at 7:39
  • @BillJ You've actually managed to find two more count nouns that are also singularia tantum. "Deal" is certainly a count noun (the fact that it can take an indefinite article is diagnostic), and "knowledge" is complicated because it can be a mass noun or a count noun, but as a count noun it's always singular (you can have a knowledge of something, but you cannot have multiple knowledges). "Regard" is a mass noun that can be used in the singular ("to hold in high regard") or the plural ("kind regards"), which is also neat.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 7 at 13:48
  • Whatever your analysis, I don't think it's helpful to conflate "singulare tantum" with "non-count noun" and everything else as "count noun" as categories.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 7 at 13:49
  • Under restricted conditions, "a" can combine with non-count singulars. I rather assumed you'd spot the appropriate senses of the items I listed. In "He wastes a great deal of time", "deal" is non-count. And "knowledge" is non-count in "Jill has a good knowledge of Greek", and "regard" is non-count in "I have a high regard for them". I didn't conflate singular-only with non-count. It just happens that the majority of non-count nouns are invariably singular, while only a fairly small number are invariably plural (e.g. "remains" "credentials", "genitals", "proceeds" etc.)
    – BillJ
    Apr 7 at 14:03
  • @BillJ The reason the indefinite article is generally taken as diagnostic in English is because it effectively behaves like (and goes back to) a numeral. Like I've said, different analyses certainly exist; none is universal, and if you want to argue about their relative merits the first step is for you to make your definitions explicit. Whatever your analysis, I can't see the sense in arbitrarily counting "remains" as a mass noun but relegating "scissors" to the count nouns, as you advocated.
    – Cairnarvon
    Apr 7 at 14:15

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