It is tempting to think of plurals as a simple concept that is always the same in every language. After all, it’s just a matter of counting. Once you get to two, you need a plural. But English behaves otherwise! Some English words look plural but are singular in meaning. Don’t let an s at the end trip you up! Instead, learn how these false plurals work.
The literal meaning of crossroads is where two roads intersect. It can also mean turning point. In both cases, it keeps the final s even in the singular: I was at a crossroads in my career (J’étais à un tournant de ma carrière).
When customs refers to inspections at the border, the word is always singular: Customs is very strict about alcohol (La douane surveille de près les entrées d’alcool).
When the s is dropped, this noun becomes an adjective meaning “unkind” or “median.” To keep the meaning of resources or method, the s must stay, even in the singular: This is just a means to an end (Il ne s’agit là que d’un moyen d’arriver à mes fins).
The news is bad (Les nouvelles sont mauvaises). Anything related to the concept of information is always singular in English. Don’t be fooled by the final s in news, which is indeed a singular noun.
The literal meaning of outdoors is on the other side of the doors, but often it implies any place away from human habitation. You also hear the great outdoors and out-of-doors. All of these expressions always remain singular: The great outdoors has real appeal for tourists (La nature revêt un grand intérêt pour les touristes).
Despite its final s, savings can be singular: This price represents a savings of $100 (Ce prix représente une économie de 100 $). It is also encountered in the plural: We enjoyed great savings on all our purchases (On a fait de belles économies sur tous nos achats).
Even when it’s clear from the context that the subject is singular, series always has an s on the end: The BBC has just launched a new series (La BBC vient de lancer une nouvelle série).
Here’s a fun word guaranteed to make an impression! Shambles means mess or chaos, and is always preceded by the indefinite article a: The room was a shambles (La pièce était sens dessus dessous); What a shambles! (Quelle pagaille!); The city was a shambles after the earthquake (La ville présentait un spectacle de dévastation après le tremblement de terre).
Another example that can go either way: Three species of birds live on the island (Trois espèces d’oiseau habitent l’île); Scientists have discovered a new species (Les scientifiques ont découvert une nouvelle espèce).
A holdover from the English genitive, the singular ways is used mostly in the expression a ways to go (du chemin à faire). Despite its strange appearance, it’s more common than you might think. Look it up on the Internet and you’ll find tens of thousands of examples.
Plural lookalikes appear in other contexts, too.
Nouns ending in “ics”
Examples are plentiful: physics (physique), gymastics (gymnastique), economics (économie), mathematics (mathématiques), politics (politique), aerobics (aérobie), athletics (athlétisme, sport), linguistics (linguistique), logistics (logistique), and so on. Each of these is a singular noun.
Certain country names
Countries are always considered a single entity, even if the name looks plural. One such case is the United States: The United States is a world power (Les États-Unis sont une puissance mondiale). Other examples are the Philippines, the Virgin Islands (les îles Vierges), the Bahamas, etc.
Certain conditions or diseases
This category includes measles (la rougeole), mumps (les oreillons), herpes (l’herpès), rabies (la rage), and even the creeps (la chair de poule) and the jitters (la frousse or le trac). These last two do not often appear as the subject of a verb and are sometimes treated as plurals.
Any quantity of things or amount of money, however high or low, is singular: Two hundred dollars is enough (Deux cents dollars suffiront). English only uses a plural verb if each element is considered separately: Two hundred five-dollar bills were on the table (Deux cents billets de cinq dollars se trouvaient sur la table).
A special case
Last, a word that isn’t even a noun, but that has an intriguing final s all the same: unawares. As you know, without an s unaware is an adjective meaning uninformed in the sense of not knowing: He was unaware of the danger (Il était inconscient du danger); I am not unaware that… (Je ne suis pas sans savoir que…) So where does this s come from, given that English adjectives don’t agree with their nouns? It’s actually an adverb that means without being aware of and it’s used mostly with the verb to catch: He was caught unawares (On l’a pris au dépourvu or à l’improviste). A subtle nuance!