What’s the plural of Portuguese man o’ war?

Matthew Chatfield
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Washing up on Isle of Wight beaches – and indeed much of the south coast – have been a few bedraggled Portuguese man o’ war. They caused a bit of a flurry of interest as for once, these things actually could hurt someone, and so need to be treated with care. A couple of (more or less) live ones were rescued and sent to Fort Victoria Marine Aquarium, where they’ve been a big hit with the public.

Physalia physalis, Portuguese man o' war © designwallah

But there’s a problem, which I came across whilst writing the press release warning people of the animals. It’s even more taxing than the question of the best treatment for man o’ war stings. What is the correct plural term for Portuguese man o’ war? A bit of work with Google sheds little light. In fact, there is not even agreement as to how the singular is written and punctuated. Options include:

Clearly this is not too much of an issue, as they would all be spoken the same. With such a rarely-used name it’s probably easiest to simply say that this is a bit of our language that has not been codified – none of the options are wrong, and it’s unlikely that any common usage is going to be agreed, as one’s hardly needed. But when it comes to plurals, as well as all the above variations, there are even more. It seems that this is a question which can’t be answered: there is no agreed plural, so you’ll have to chose one you are comfortable with and stick to it. The Ranger, along with the Telegraph, has chosen, in a fairly arbitrary way, to use the singular as the plural – rather like sheep and deer. So, “One Portuguese man o’ war was washed up at Sandown, but two Portuguese man o’ war were washed up in Ventnor”. This convention is attractive because of its simplicity. It avoids the hyphenation and apostrophe issues by bypassing them – whatever your preference for the punctuation, you can use it in both the plural and singular. However, in a similar way there are a couple of options to consider.

These are quite different and would be said differently, too. Neither seem to sound natural to The Ranger’s ears. Unlike the punctuation it would probably be beneficial to know which plural was correct. So, whilst our language is not a democratic institution so much as an utterly unregulated free market, I invite you to cast your votes for what we can recommend as the official plural for Portuguese man o’ war. And if you want to pass judgement on the right punctuation too, feel free…

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

11 thoughts on “What’s the plural of Portuguese man o’ war?

  • 25th May, 2018 at 5:52 pm
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    Way after the germ of the discussion, but the notice that this is not a question contemplated after being stung, perhaps suggests the right ter should be “f’ing jellyfish!!!” Always with the multiple exclamation marks! ;-D

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  • 18th October, 2016 at 1:44 am
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    I know this comment comes quite late, but I’m curious why we capitalize “Portuguese”, in Portuguese man o’ war, but don’t capitalize “danish” when referring to the pastry.

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  • 7th September, 2012 at 1:54 pm
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    My vote is for man-o’-war, They’re not human males, they’re jellyfish. Incidentally, we say jellyfish not jellyfishes; so it fits.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I have no objection to attorneys general or daughters-in-law, but my vote is for Portuguese Man-o’-War. I think that people generally use that term in the vernacular because it just sounds better and popular usage may one day dictate a rule for this.

    But men-o’-war and man-o’-wars both simply sound funny.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    The only part of it that should be capitalized is “Portuguese”–the rest would be lower case, in the same way you don’t capitalize the names of other animals. Both Portuguese man-of-war and Portuguese man o’ war are standard. The o’ simply indicating the omission of the “f” in imitation of how it is more often pronounced by sailors–in the same way that “forecastle” is often written as fo’c’sle.

    The plural should definitely be Portuguese men-of-war. As Steve pointed out, they are named for Portuguese war ships of sail. The plural for such ships is men-of-war, never, ever man-of-wars (ugh!)

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    My vote is with the Men o’War crowd. Love the picture. I think it’s the best one I’ve ever seen of a Man o’War. Yes, they are quite the treat on the beach. Not.

    Here in the States, we say “herd of cattle.” Or, at least around here we do. But then, I live in the absolute middle of nowhere, in a hamlet of perhaps 250 people. So, perhaps the phrase is an anomaly, although I suspect it’s prevalent at least in the South.

    It’s 3:00 a.m. Why am I writing about possible Southernisms? It is time to go to sleep. Have you ever noticed what incredible amounts of time – seemingly passing in the twinkling of an eye – can be spent at the computer?

    Yes, it’s definitely time to go to sleep. In response to the question re: What color is a lemon, I typed in “lemon.” Duh.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    i concurr… Men o’war is much better. incidentally i read somewhere that the collective noun is a fluther of Portuguese MEN o’war. can anybody confirm?

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    OK! English is a language that constantly evolves. I vote that we set the plural as ‘Portuguese Men-o’-War’.

    Grasp it like a man of mettle
    Soft as silk remains the nettle…

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    My Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life says ‘Portuguese Man-o’-War’, and I would be inclined to keep the plural as just that. The alternatives grate.
    Better still, do as the BBC does and avoid referring to them in the plural!

    The Ranger responds:
    yes, I noticed that when researching the references. I mean, BBC English – that’s the functional authority for me. Never mind any miserable old dictionary, ‘old’ being the relevant word here. However I’m disappointed that in this instance they failed to grasp the nettle. Perhaps Naturenet can for once tread where the BBC fears.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Interesting point (tho’ perhaps not one to be comtemplated just after you’ve been stung).

    I’d go back to the original derivation, from the Tudor ships, and would say that the plural would be men o’war. No idea which letters should be capitalised, however.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I think the plural should remain Portuguese Man o’ War. While we’re on the subject, why do you get a herd of cows but not a flock of sheeps?

    The Ranger responds: interesting query… one with a lot of mileage in it. A herd of cattle, maybe? I’ve got a theory that it’s something to do with animals you eat/hunt – deer, sheep, moose, cattle, swine, pheasant, etc. Especially as sporting people might talk of ‘a brace of pheasant’, but in non-sporting parlance you might say ‘there were two pheasants in the garden’.

    Reply

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