Ambiguous Plurals


“Axes” is the plural of both ax and axis, and “bases” is the plural of both base and basis. Based on these observations, Willard Espy, in “A Plurality of Singular Verse”, Word Ways, Vol. 7, 1974, gave the following couple of short verses:

Paul Bunyan swung his ax, with view
To sundering the earth in two;
The ax that made that mighty probe
Stuck at the axis of the globe;
Pray tell, Larous, pray tell, Bowditch,
Of those two axes, which is which?

The base of a basis from the basis of a base
Is easy to distinguish in the singular case;
But the bases of bases I can’t define as yet;
The more I think about them the more I get upset.

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is

10 thoughts on “Ambiguous Plurals

  1. When I encounter such conundrums as ambiguity of plural forms and complexity of comparative and superlative adjectives (e.g. “better” instead of “gooder”), I am thankful that English is my first language, and marvel at the comparative grammatical simplicity of Mandarin, the language I’m studying now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Modern Mandarin is now straightforward and streamlined. On the other hand, classical Chinese can be very ambiguous. A single line could have dozens of interpretations and they’re all correct. Also, considering that there was no punctuation in Chinese writings before, the ambiguity increased.

      Cantonese is the most difficult Chinese dialect to learn. While there are only four basic sounds in Mandarin, Cantonese has eight or more.


      1. That’s true. The Mandarin learned today is the “simplified” version, adapted to increase the literacy of the population. I have heard tell of the difficulty of classical Chinese. Just reading poems from the Tang and Song dynasties, I’m confused. I lived in Xi’an for a few years, but visited Guangzhou recently, where Cantonese is spoken and is certainly different from the Mandarin I learned for 4+ years. Fortunately, Mandarin- and Cantonese-speakers generally share the same written language, so I could understand the signs.


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