Dear Language Nerd,
So I’m in the kitchen, planning to cut up some beef, holding my kitchen scissors at the ready, and I haven’t done it yet because I’m standing and thinking, why do I call these “a pair of scissors” when there’s only one of them?
Please respond before my meat goes bad!
Nothing hurries the Language Nerd like a threat to quality food, so here I am, writing as fast as I can! Fortunately, the answer’s brief – we say “a pair of scissors” because scissors are made of two matched parts that work together. In fact, in most dictionaries, the first definition of “pair” will be two unique objects hanging out together, but the second or third definition will be the one for “pair of scissors,” like this one from the OED:
“3. A single tool, instrument, or item of clothing, consisting of two joined or corresponding parts not used separately. Usu. with of and plural noun complement, as pair of scissors, pair of trousers, etc.”
This is why, for example, we wear one “pair of pants” at a time, but usually not a “pair of shirts.” The two legs on pants match up, but even though a shirt has two matching sleeves, the non-matched-up torso-covering bit there in the middle is more important, so “shirt” doesn’t get the pair treatment.*
Oddly enough, it’s not just that “a pair of scissors” can refer to one object – it has to. We use a phrase that normally indicates the dual to specify the singular because the noun’s stuck in the plural form. (We’re a little bit insane?) “Scissors” is grammatically plural, but alone it can mean a singular or plural number of objects — you don’t change the noun whether your maniacal cry is “Bring me the scissors!” or “Bring me ALLLLLLLL the scissors!” Nouns that only** come in plural go by the name plurale tantum, and that includes the whole spectrum of “pair” words, like “scissors,” “pants,” “jeans,” “pliers” and so on. So if you do want to show a singular object, or to specify an exact number, you’ve got to throw “pair” in there as a measure word – “a pair of slacks,” “six pairs of binoculars.”
Also, on a totally relevant note, etymonline contains this awesome tidbit:
“Oh scissors! was a 19c. exclamation of impatience or disgust.”
I prescribe this a minimum of four times daily. It can only help.
The Language Nerd
*Still not sure how long it’ll be before “pair of leather sleeves” is known as a single extremely fashionable garment.
**Well, almost only. Expensive and/or time-traveling cars have those scissor doors, for one. See why I’m so fond of the exception-free pronunciation rules?
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