Some words always stump us when it comes to their plurals, and we are not sure if we should add the letter “s” to it like with most plurals or apply a different rule to that noun. One such word is “sheep,” so is it correct to say “sheeps” when we talk about more than one sheep or do we apply a different rule for plurals here?
It is not correct to say “sheeps.” The plural of “sheep” is “sheep.” We say “sheep,” whether it is one sheep, two sheep, or a million sheep! It is one of the many irregular plural nouns in English and does not follow the regular rules for plurals.
In the case of irregular plurals, the normal rules of pluralizing do not work. In addition, there are many different types of irregular plurals, including words like “sheep,” which we call base plurals. This means that we have to memorize those plurals.
We also need to know which article to use with such words depending on the context. Last but not least, we need to find out if we can use the word “sheeps” in any way. In this article, we’ll walk you through each of these items with examples.
What Is the Plural of “Sheep”?
Again, “sheep” is the plural of “sheep.” So we say “sheep” whether we are referring to one sheep, two sheep, or many sheep. It is one of many irregular plural nouns, a noun that becomes plural in a way other than adding -s or -es to the end.
Most irregular plurals are nouns that stem from older forms of English or from a foreign language.
Why Do We Not Say “Sheeps?”
One of the reasons why “sheep” is both the singular and plural form of the word lies in its origins, and the word “sheep” has a rich etymological history. It comes from the Old English word “scēap” related to the Old German “scāf.”
According to an article by Anatoly Liberman for the Oxford University Press, scēap or scēp was a neuter noun, and its plural ended in “u” (source).
However, over time and with frequent usage, the word lost its “u” ending, and the singular and plural forms merged, which is why we use “sheep” whether we refer to one or many.
For more on this, there is an interesting video on TEDEd entitled “A brief history of plural words” by John McWhorter that takes us on a brief history of plural words.
When Can We Use “Sheeps”?
There is not an acceptable use of “sheeps”. While “fishes” is a generally acceptable plural form to refer to different species of fish, and we might even see “deers” in American English, this does not seem to apply to “sheep” generally. For many species of sheep, we normally use the term “breeds of sheep” in preference to “sheeps.”
However, one grammar book published by De Gruyter Mouton entitled Meaning and Grammar: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives does mention the fundamental problems we face with mass nouns compared to count nouns (source).
They note that when we deal with mass nouns like “sheep,” “deer,” or “fish,” we will sometimes use plural forms like “sheeps,” “deers,” or “fishes” when referring to different kinds or species. However, while we can find dictionary entries for “deers” and “fishes,” we cannot find one for the noun “sheeps.”
Note that Merriam-Webster as of this date has an entry for “sheeps,” but it does not include any similar entry in the Learner’s Dictionary. In addition, this entry defines “sheeps” as a present-tense third-person singular, which would make it a verb, while the base word linked to it, “sheep,” is a noun (source).
In fact, the Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 refers to sheep as both a singular and plural noun and contains no entry for “sheeps” (source).
Also, while Grammarly will accept “deers” and “fishes,” it will always flag “sheeps” as incorrect.
So regarding the question, “When can you use sheeps?”
We recommend that you avoid using it as a plural for academic writing since no dictionary currently recognizes it.
- I saw 20 sheeps today. (incorrect)
- I saw 20 sheep today. (correct)
Do not use it as a verb.
- She sheeps. (incorrect, “sheep” is not a verb)
- She sleeps. (correct, “sleep” is a verb)
However, it is OK to use “sheeps” when quoting another text, as I have below. For example, you can find one archaic use of the word “sheeps” in Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing (source):
Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?
The Singular and Plural Possessive Form of Sheep: Sheep’s
“Sheep’s” is both the singular and plural possessive form of the noun “sheep,” referring to something of a single or multiple sheep. Check out the below examples to understand more about how other words help readers understand whether sheep is singular or plural in each case.
|Form||Sheep’s: Possessive Form of Sheep|
|Singular||This sheep’s fleece is white.“Sheep” is singular here because of the associated singular pronoun “this.” Note that the verb “is” refers to the “fleece” of a single “sheep.”|
|Plural||These sheep’s fleeces are black. “Sheep” is plural here because of the associated plural pronoun “these.” The verb “are” refers to the “fleeces” of the many sheep.|
|Plural||These sheep’s barn is enormous.Here, “sheep” is plural once again because of the associated plural pronoun “these.” In addition, the verb used is “is” here because it refers to the singular noun “barn.”|
Note that people often miss the apostrophe for the possessive “sheep’s,” resulting in the misspelled, incorrect word, “sheeps.” So, for example, you might see someone write “a wolf in sheeps clothing” instead of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Read this article, “Todays or Today’s: Which Is Correct?” to learn more about using the apostrophe before the “s.”
“Sheep” and Other Irregular Plurals
Let us now have a brief look at the different irregular plurals with examples (source).
Base or Zero Plurals: These nouns have identical singular and plural forms. Many of these are animal names, like the featured word “sheep,” as well as the below.
Some other base plural nouns are “aircraft,” “the blues” (as in music), “series,” and “species.”
Apophonic or Mutated Plurals: We form the plurals for these nouns by changing the vowel sound of the singular form. For example, words like “foot,” “tooth,” and “goose” become “feet,” “teeth,” and “geese” in their plural forms.
Other examples include “mouse” and “louse.” More than one mouse becomes “mice,” and more than one louse becomes “lice,” though I would rather not have even one of them around me. However, we cannot apply the same rules to words like “boot,” “booth,” “moose,” and “spouse”!
The -en Plurals: Three specific words become plurals by adding an “en” sound to the singular. These include “ox,” “child,” and “brother/sister,” which become “oxen,” “children,” and “brethren/sistren” (archaic use) in their plural form.
Other Irregulars: There are many other types of irregular plurals, and here are some examples (source):
You can even check out this interesting video that has a lot of sheep!
Can We Say “Many Sheep?”
Yes, we can say “many sheep” because “sheep” is a countable noun. Countable nouns refer to things we can count using numbers, like books, cakes, puppies, and sheep.
The question, “How many?” helps us know the quantity of a countable noun. We can also say “many” when we do not know the exact number of a countable thing.
On the other hand, uncountable nouns are those that we cannot quantify with a number, like air, rice, sugar, tea, and love. We use the question “How much?” to find out the quantity (not in numbers) of an uncountable noun.
For example, our article, “Food vs. Foods: What’s the Difference?” uses what we enjoy doing a lot — eating — to explain countable and uncountable nouns. Go ahead and read it, but make sure you have snacks handy as it might just make you hungry!
- My little girl was very excited when she saw many sheep grazing in the field.
- My little girl had so much fun reading to the many dolls she received for her birthday.
Which Article Is Used for “Sheep?”
We can use either “a” or “the” for “sheep,” depending on the context. For example, we can say, “The sheep followed the shepherd.” In this case, “sheep” can be singular or plural. Maybe it is one specific sheep or a specific flock of sheep following the shepherd.
We can also say, “Mary saw a sheep following the shepherd.” This means that Mary saw any one of many sheep following the shepherd.
“A Sheep” or “An Sheep”: Which is Correct?
Since “sheep” begins with a consonant sound, “a sheep” is correct when referring to any particular sheep. The below examples will help you compare the correct and incorrect use of the indefinite article for “sheep.”
- I saw a sheep grazing in the field today. (correct)
- She saw an sheep crossing the road. (incorrect)
What About “The Sheep?”
We use “the” with nouns when the meaning is specific, that is, when the noun refers to one of a kind or a specific thing (source). For example, with “sheep,” we can use it for both the singular and plural forms of the word, and other helper words will explain the context.
- “Shaun the Sheep” (title of a TV show)
- The sheep is hungry. (a specific sheep in context)
- Counting the sheep in the field may help you fall asleep. (a specific flock of sheep)
So we can use “a” when referring to a single sheep (any sheep in general, or one of many), and we can use “the” when referring to a specific sheep or a specific herd/flock of sheep.
Understanding the Basic Rules
It helps if we understand more about the articles themselves. English has two different articles: the indefinite article and the definite article.
The first one is the indefinite article that does not specify which one of anything we are talking about. This includes “a” and “an.”
Then we have the definite article, “the,” which indicates the writer is pointing to a specific thing or person.
Note that we can use “a” and “an” only before singular countable nouns, while we can use “the” before singular and plural countable nouns, as well as uncountable nouns (source).
Merriam-Webster states that choosing between the articles “a” and “an” depends upon the sound of the word following the article. Use “a” for words with consonant sounds and “an” for words with vowel sounds.
Here are some more examples to help illustrate this.
We use “a” with singular nouns beginning with a consonant sound: a horse, a sheep, a unicorn. Note that “unicorn begins with the “y” sound.
We use “an” with singular nouns beginning with a vowel sound: an ant, an honest man, an umbrella, an event. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To understand more about indefinite articles, read “A Usual” or “An Usual”: Which Article Should You Use?”
With irregular plural nouns like “sheep,” unfortunately, there are no specific rules for pluralizing the words, so we simply need to memorize these words. Thankfully, there are not too many of them we use on a regular basis! In addition, most of them are unusual enough to make memorizing them a breeze.
As for today’s featured word, you only need to remember two things. First, “sheep” is the plural for “sheep,” and second, we do not use “sheeps” unless we are repeating other text verbatim or using the possessive form, with an apostrophe before the “s,” as in “sheep’s.”
Now that you have this information, you can impress others with your knowledge of base plurals and their histories too!