A singular plural

Not so long ago, when I was preparing to send off an invoice for a couple of articles I’d put together for a magazine, it occurred to me that invoice is what might be called a singular plural. The modern English noun invoice used to be written invoyes, from which spelling we can see that the old form was a plural. As happened to various other words taken from foreign languages, the original plural came to be construed as a singular (compare Latin data), and in this case it got respelled somewhat as well. The resulting new singular, invoice, has since generated its own regular plural, invoices. (Note that invoice can also function as a verb meaning ‘to send an invoice.’)

The obsolete invoyes had had as its singular the form invoy, which came into English from French envoi, literally ‘a sending.’ The corresponding French verb envoyer ‘to send’ is a cognate of Spanish enviar, from Late Latin inviare, etymologically ‘[to send] on [its] way.’ The resulting Spanish form has remained transparent, still revealing the elements en ‘in, on’ and vía ‘way, road.’ In fact the original Latin noun via, with its v pronounced like an English w, was a cognate of native English way.

French envoyer has as its past participle envoyé ‘sent,’ which came to be used as a noun meaning ‘person sent, messenger.’ English borrowed that noun but sent the ending on its merry way, with the result that an envoy is ‘a person sent to represent a government.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    May 15, 2013 @ 09:01:10

    It’s interesting that, in a way, an invoice is itself an envoy. While not a person, it certainly is a “thing” sent to represent the person who’s performed services.

    Your mention of “data” and “datum” reminded me that I’ve been wondering about “quote” and “quotation”. I was taught – and still follow the guideline – that “quote” is a verb, “quotation” a noun. It seems that those words are changing, too. In fact, they may already have changed while my back was turned.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 15, 2013 @ 09:20:37

      That’s the way to go: I like your concept of an invoice being an envoy, even if an inanimate one.

      The third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage says that quote used as a noun is a casualism that “sounds more and more natural all the time, as it seems to predominate in spoken English. So although it remains informal for now, it’s likely to gain ground in formal prose.” That quote is probably one you don’t want to turn your back on.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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