I don’t remember this myself, but it has been told to me by an unimpeachable source, my mother. When I was a toddler, I figured out all by myself the proper term for an individual item of clothing. Since the plural was “clothes,” then with reasoning that must have seemed very logical to me, I decided the singular had to be “clo.”
Actually, it still seems logical to me. If you think about it, that was rather sophisticated grammar for a two-year-old. I’ve long since learned to have fun with the oddities of the English language, but I feel sorry for any innocent child just beginning to cope with its unpredictable and occasionally bizarre structure.
Plurals alone are confusing enough. Put one cat with another cat and you have two cats. (Well, after a couple of months you might have eight or nine cats, but that’s a different subject. We’re dealing with English here, not sex education.) Yet put one mouse with another mouse and you don’t have two mouses, you have two mice. Where’s the logic in that? Any bright little kid is going to figure out that the simplest solution is just to let the cats eat one of the mouses—er, mice—and then you don’t have to worry about it.
And then there are tenses. Their migraine-inducing irregularities have to make them the most aptly named component of English grammar. We walk today and we walked yesterday, but we eat today and we ate yesterday. Even more confusing, our feet run today while they ran yesterday, but so did our noses.
Lately I’ve been spending time with several toddler grandkids who are just developing their own versions of spoken English. I’m impressed with their grasp of what would, in a logical linguistic world, be correct grammar. They are amazing at figuring out how grammar works. Alas, if only English actually worked that well.
By the way, despite over-simplified reports in the news about a decade ago, researchers have not identified a “grammar gene” that’s responsible for this learning. If you want to know more, here’s a link to a related post from the Language Log website. (Warning: Click with caution. Exposure to this site may result in hours of time loss for dedicated word nerds.)
Back to the logic, or lack thereof, in English grammar, I have a question. Why don’t we have a singular word like “clo” to go with the plural “clothes?” Every now and then we need a word for “one piece of clothing not specifically identified as, say, a shirt or sock.” “Cloth” doesn’t work, being just the raw material for clothes.
True, we have “garment.” But somehow it just doesn’t feel like an everyday word. It has a slightly old-fashioned air. You might discreetly describe a Victorian petticoat as a “garment,” but the word doesn’t quite fit a tee-shirt from Walmart. We could use another word, one that’s less formal than “garment” but still more descriptive than the all-purpose “thing.”
“Clo” might just be that word. As in: “Put the clothes in the washer one clo at a time.” Or, “My closet might look full, but I don’t have a clo to wear!”
Maybe, all those years ago, my two-year-old self was onto something.