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Specie or Species: Why Specie is Not the Singular Form of Species

“Species” and “specie,” at first glance, appear to be the same word with one being the plural of the other. However, they have very different meanings. So then, what is the singular form of species?

“Species” is not the plural form of “specie”. “Species” is a term that can be used both as a singular noun to refer to a single species at a time and a plural noun to refer to multiple species. Species is used by scientists to refer to the lowest taxonomy rank in the hierarchy of biological classification.

“Specie,” on the other hand, refers to money or hard currency, and it was a critical concept in monetary theory, especially after the 16th century.

This article will cover the definition of “specie” and “species” with the historical use of each word. We’ll also discuss plural and singular nouns, regular and irregular plurals, and nouns that sound plural but are singular.

Is Species Singular or Plural?

Specie and species are both nouns, meaning a person, place, or thing. “Species” are living beings, while “specie” is a thing. When using either word, is there a way to know if it is singular or plural? 

When looking at most nouns, it is easy to determine if the word is singular, just one of something, or plural, more than one of something. Generally, all you must do to make a noun plural is add an “s” to the singular form (source).

If this rule held fast, it would be logical that specie would mean “one of” something, while “species” would mean “more than one of” something. Although “specie” does not have an “s,” this does not mean it is singular. 

Specie can represent both the singular and plural or hard coin. Likewise, “species” can represent one or more species.

Count and Noncount Nouns 

Most nouns are fairly straightforward. They are sometimes referred to as count nouns because you can separate or group them and then count them. Some examples of count nouns include books, chairs, or crackers. These nouns have both a singular and plural form.

Noncount nouns cannot be counted and do not have a plural form. Examples include knowledge, jewelry, cheese, furniture, homework, money, luggage, air, ice, water, rice, coffee, bread, sugar, and water (source). 

You would not say, “I have three cheeses.” You could only say, “I have cheese.” Although, you could say, “I have three kinds of cheese.” “Specie” and “species” would fall into this category.

Irregular Plurals

Some nouns can be singular and plural, no matter how many you may be talking about. Most singular and plural nouns tend to be animals, like bison, deer, fish, moose, salmon, sheep, but not always, as in the case of watercraft and spacecraft.

Some nouns sound plural but are in actuality single, and there are nouns that are plural with no singular form. Examples of nouns that sound plural but are singular include mathematics, news, team, measles, mumps, species, and molasses.

Examples of nouns that are plural and have no singular form include police, staff, and British.

What’s the Plural Form of Species?

In a sentence, the verb will always agree with the subject. In the case of a word with no variation in singular or plural form, such as species, subject-verb agreement is imperative.

This species is on the brink of extinction.These species are on the brink of extinction.
That sheep is herded by the dog.The sheep are herded by the dog.
That deer is on the lawn.The deer are on the lawn.

Is Species the Plural Form of Specie?

No, species is not the plural form of specie. The “s” at the end of “species” makes all the difference here. Based on typical English word usage, it might seem more than reasonable to assume that “specie” is merely the singular form. However, this is not the case.

The two words are just that, two separate words, although they do share a common root word relating to “kind.”

Definition of Species

According to Oxford’s Lexico online dictionary, the word species can cover groups in biology, chemistry and physics, and the church, specifically Catholic, relating to the elements of the Eucharist (source).

The origin of our word “species” derives from Latin through Late Middle English. Its literal definition is “appearance, form, beauty,” based on the Latin specere, meaning “to look.” 

Lexicographers believe the word “species” first appeared in the 14th century. The meaning was essentially the same as today — kind or sort.

The word was first used as an adjective in 1899 to describe a flower that was naturally occurring and not a hybrid species, like the rose.

General Kind or Sort

The one definition of species that ties them together is as an expression for a “kind” or “sort” of thing. Chemists and physicists used the term species to refer to certain types of atoms, particles, ions, or molecules.

This definition of species is a bit broader in scope than the more commonly used biological taxonomy definition. We can apply it to other sciences and even groups of people.

Species, when used humorously, refers to people sharing common characteristics or occupations, such as politicians. 

For instance, in high school, there are girls. Under the category of girls are groups such as cheerleaders, the popular, the pretty, etc. Each group has a certain set of characteristics assigned. Therefore, one could informally say that cheerleaders are a species all their own.

Catholic Usage

The Catholic Church defines species, as in appearance, as the visible form of each element of the Eucharistic after consecration. This usage is very specific and limited compared to the other definitions (source).

Biology and Taxonomy

Biology is a living science, so “species” is the word biologists use to describe a group of living organisms. The group consists of individuals that are similar to one another, having common attributes, and can exchange genes or breed with individuals of the same group.

The most common usage of the word “species” you will find is in this biological context. 

Biologists use “species” as the principal natural unit of taxonomic classification, ranking below a genus. It is marked by a Latin binomial (two words), for example, the species Homo sapiens of the genus Homo.

Taxonomy is the science of the classification in the biology of living organisms. Specifically, taxonomy is the classification of both living and extinct organisms.

Taxonomy sets up the various kinds of animals and plants’ arrangements into superior and subordinate groups (source).

The taxonomy system used across the globe is the Linnaeus system. Named after Carolus Linnaeus, this system began to be widely used in the 1750s. In the Linnaeus System, animals are classified as follows:

Domain (Domains)
Kingdom (Kingdoms)
Phylum (Phyla)
Class (Classes)
Order (Orders)
Family (Families)
Genus (Genera)
Species (Species)

Take the brown-back mockingbird, for example. The brown-back mockingbird (Mimus dorsalis) is a species of bird within the family of Mimidae and the classification Aves.

While still widely used, the Linnaeus system has evolved, especially regarding the nomenclature or biological classification system. Today, the ranking system accepted by zoologists and botanists is the Modern Obligatory hierarchy of ranks. 

The goal of classification is to put organisms into established categories. While it is unavoidable at times to create new categories, it is preferable to avoid it. Therefore, the Hierarchy of Ranks contains seven accepted ranks used worldwide.

SpeciesHomo sapiens (modern humans)Pinus strobus (white pine)
The Obligatory Hierarchy of Ranks 

There are many ways that we use the word “species,” while we almost never use the word “specie” anymore.

Specie vs. Species

Coins, Cent, Specie, Money, Euro, Dime Pieces, Metal
Image by Hans via Pixabay

While “specie” also derives from the same Latin root word as “species,” it’s meaning is very different. So what’s the difference between species and specie?

Lexicographers date its appearance to the mid-16th century. It is the ablative of species, as in “form” or “kind,” in the phrase “in specie,” meaning “in the actual form” (source).

Specie is defined as money in coins — specifically, those struck from precious metals instead of printed on paper. The term is most closely related to finance, monetary theory, and banking (source).

To request something “in specie” is to ask for something “in coin” or “in hard coin.” It still has limited legal use as in to request something “in the real” or in the actual form that was specified. It also implies precision or accuracy.

A Short History of Specie and Mercantilism

The concept of “specie” was central to the economic theory of mercantilism in Europe during the 16th through the 18th centuries. It promoted the regulation of a nation’s economy by the government to enhance the state’s power at the expense of rival nations. 

The strong monarchies of France and England sought to increase their nations’ wealth through favorable balances of trade.

The wealth of a nation was based on precious metals, such as gold and silver — specie. If a nation did not have mines of their own, then the metal had to be obtained through trade.

For trade balances to be favorable, a nation had to export more goods than it imported.

With the establishment of overseas colonies, those colonies supplied the mother country with the raw materials for the mother country to produce manufactured goods.

In turn, the colonies also served as markets for the finished goods exported from the mother country.

There was no major manufacturing of goods by colonies, and the mother country held a monopoly on commerce with the colony.

According to this theory, if a nation were strong, they would have a large population able to supply labor, a market, and soldiers.

This population’s wants would be minimal, especially for luxury goods, which were needed for foreign exchange, and being thrifty and saving were virtues. This is how capital was created.

Mercantilism and the British Colonies

This was particularly true for England. England imposed numerous restrictions on how colonists could spend money, thereby controlling their economy.

Britain not only imposed limits on what the colonies produced but also on how much, how they transported it, and what countries they traded with (source).

Eventually, Britain would allow the colonies to assess their own taxes but took away that right to pay for the French and Indian War. This system of mercantilism led to the American Revolution.

It was not all bad though, mercantilism ultimately led to free-market capitalism.

During the American Revolution, the colonies were severely lacking in specie. The Continental Congress began issuing paper money to finance the war effort, but, with nothing to back it up, it quickly became worthless.

Reliability of Paper Currency

Paper currency as a reliable legal tender did not exist in the United States until the 1860s. In 1862, the US Treasury Department began issuing paper money backed by government bonds to pay for the Civil War. In 1863, only federally chartered banks were authorized to issue banknotes. 

The end of the Civil War saw $430,000,000 in paper money circulating and declared legal tender.

There was a push to return to specie or hard money, but those that supported paper currency were afraid of deflation. Subsequently, to alleviate any fear, the Federal Government declared paper money would be redeemable at par with gold.

Specie payments resumed in 1879, thanks to the Resumption Act of 1875. The Resumption Act stated that the Treasury secretary would redeem legal-tender notes in specie. Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman, managed to obtain enough gold to back the Act.

Now that paper money was “good as gold,” the public continued to accept and use paper money.

Since 1913, after Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Reserve Bank has issued federal reserve notes, printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing under the Department of the Treasury.

The notes are no longer redeemable in gold (since 1934) or silver (since the 1960s) (source).

Final Thoughts

As nouns, species and specie are considered irregular, having neither a separate singular nor plural form. Sentence context and subject-verb agreement are the only way to determine if there is one or more than one species or specie being referred to.

Although species and specie sound similar, “species” is a term used in science to classify groups of living organisms, while “specie” refers to money, as in precious metal, usually gold or silver. 

The latter is rarely used anymore. Try using it the next time you go to the store and see if the cashier knows what you are asking — it might be fun.

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