The Trouble With Pluralizing Emoji

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today I tried to answer a grammar question that has long vexed us here at The Atlantic: What’s the plural of emoji?

In other words, if you have three of the symbolic characters lined up next to each other, is it better to call them these emoji (as The New York Times does here) or these emojis (as The New York Times does here)? After touring English language history and Japanese pluralization rules, I come down on the side of the more elegant emoji, though I think popular use is trending toward emojis.

This afternoon, a reader emailed to say that he believed I was muddling linguistic concepts:

As a fluent speaker of Japanese and a linguist, this is a fascinating topic for me.

I believe there is an assumption in your article that leads to a great deal of confusion, the assumption that all nouns have singular and plural forms. Thus, you compare “moose” to “sushi.” In the case of “moose”, the plural form is the same as the singular form: one moose, two moose, three moose. The same applies to “sheep.”

But in fact, there is another classification of nouns called uncountable/non-count nouns that do not have a plural form.

An example is “water,” which has no plural form. To count water, you must refer to the amount or container: one bottle of water, two quarts of water, etc. (The word “water” can also be countable in the sense of one serving or one container-ful: give me a water, I bought three waters from the grocery store.)

However, “sushi” was adopted into English as a non-count noun and must be counted as one piece of sushi, two pieces of sushi, three pieces of sushi.

In relation to this, what was really interesting about the evolution of the word data isn’t that “data” is now being used as the singular form which was traditionally “datum”, but that the word “datum/data” changed from a countable noun to the non-count “data.” So where we used to say one datum/two data, now we (most of us) say "one piece of data” and “the data is.” (Non-count nouns take the singular form of the verb, so people who still use “datum/data” get confused when people say “the data is” instead of “the data are.”)

The same process happened to “e-mail,” which started out as a non-count noun (following “mail”) but quickly turned into a countable noun.

Getting back to “emoji,” since it’s fairly implausible that it will be considered a non-count noun, a comparison to a countable noun such as “kimono” or “koi” is perhaps more apt than to “sushi,” as they are both countable and both come from Japanese. The plural of these two words can take the “s” or not in English: one kimono(s), two kimono(s), three kimono(s) and one koi(s), two koi(s), three koi(s). This indicates that Anglicization of “kimono” and “koi” is incomplete.

Two examples of Anglicization that is complete are “biscotti” and “panini,” two plural Italian nouns that are singular in English and are used with the plural “s” by all but the most pedantic.

I think the real question then is whether the s-less (zero morpheme) form of “emoji” will stay with us or not. During the Anglicization period, publications will vary in their usage, but if emojis continue to be adopted into pop culture, I think only the pedant who orders a biscotto at the coffee shop will continue to use “emoji” as the plural form.

A further question remains: why was “sushi” adopted as a non-count noun? I’ve sometimes wondered about that but have no answer.

With respect to Japanese, it is probably easier to consider most nouns to be non-count than to say they conflate singularity and plurality.

I wrote back to the reader: Did he think that usages like this headline in New York magazine—“The Rapid Evolution of Emoji, a Wordless Tongue”—show that a non-count emoji could possibly catch on? He replied:

In the title, the word “emoji” is metalanguage. It doesn’t mean “emoji” the e-object but “the word emoji.” A way to test this sort of thing (called a diagnostic test) is to replace it with a word you are sure of: what’s the plural of dog, what’s the plural of cat.

In the case of “emoji keyboard,” the word “emoji” is acting as an adjective (what is called an attributive noun). In English, adjectives don’t usually have a plural form: “credit card payments” can mean one credit card or many, and “computer bug” means a bug probably in many computers. (Finance has a lot of exceptions to this.)

I would be very surprised to see a usage of “emoji” as non-count. One way to spot them is to look for a sentence where the meaning is many but the verb is singular: the information is interesting, the money was everywhere. Another way is that non-count nouns take “much” and countable nouns take “many”: much information, much sushi, much money; many people, many moose, many light bulbs.

Ah, well. Look’s like I’m on the losing side of Anglicization here. I’ll cope by enjoying my customary evening snack of one biscotto, two espressi, and seven Whoppers Junior.