The Plural of Canvas: Here’s What It Is and How to Use It

The English language is full of contradictions and complications that make it one of the most difficult languages in the world.  People who try to learn English as a second or even a third language struggle with very common grammar mistakes because English often breaks its own rules.

Words that seem like they should have an easy plural form often do not, and sometimes spellings are not as intuitive as they seem like they should be.  Because English gets so many of its words and concepts from other languages, it is easy to confuse endings and suffixes.  A word that fits into this category is the word canvas. In this article, let’s explore the proper use of our word of the day, canvas, how to pluralize it, look for its synonyms, and learn its context.  

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What Is the Plural Form of Canvas?

To first understand a word, its history, and how to use it properly, it is important to first define what it actually means.  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition of canvas(pronounced kænvəs) is “a firm closely woven cloth usually of linen, hemp, or cotton used for clothing and formerly much used for tents and sails.”  A secondary definition is “a piece of cloth-backed or framed as a surface for a painting.”  It is a coarse cloth that is sometimes used in clothing or accessories, as in a canvas bag. Canvas has been used for centuries in tons of different environments and for different uses, from a medieval set of sails to modern art to a boxing ring.

The word is also sometimes used as a verb, as in canvasing or canvased, which means a systematic method of contacting people. 

The correct plural of canvas is actually a bit complicated.  The dictionary also lists two possible “correct” plurals that are considered to be acceptable: canvases and canvasses.  However, it is important to remember that the dictionary, by its very nature, can not be the definitive authority on all things language.  Culture drives language, not the other way around.  So at the end of the day, when communicating to an audience, you have to know what is considered to be correct by that audience; if you do not communicate in their “language” using their spellings or colloquial terms, you may lose them.

However, for academic purposes, either the plural canvases or canvasses should be acceptable.  If you are concerned about it, just ask your teacher or your professor for clarification.

What Is the Difference Between Canvas and Canvass?

Just like there are two technically correct forms of the plural of canvas, the singular technically has two forms as well: canvas and canvass.  However, the “canvass” spelling of the word is much less popular and is a much older form of the spelling for the word in question.

What Is Another Name for Canvas?

There are several other names for canvas, but most will be discussed later in the synonyms section of this article.  For now, it is important to know that most other names for canvas are specific to the context or occupation that the canvas is occupying at any given time.  For example, there are different nicknames for canvas when used as a sail than there are for when it is used as a surface to be painted.  

The History and Origin of the Word

One of the best ways to understand a word is to learn where it came from.  A word’s etymology can reveal a lot about the changes a word has gone through to get to where it is today in modern English.  According to, the word canvas has a very complicated backstory.  The first use of the word in Middle English was a word that meant “sturdy cloth made from hemp or flax” and came from the Anglo-French canevas or canevaz in the middle of the fourteenth century.  

It is also similar to the Danish kanvas, but very distinct from the German leinwand or segeltuch, the Spanish lienzo or lona, and the Norwegian lerret

That word in turn received its origin from the “Vulgar Latin” adjective cannabāceus, which is translated “made of or from hemp,” which is a derivative of the Latin cannabis hemp and the Greek kannabis, both meaning hemp.  

The vast majority of the modern English language actually gets its roots in ancient languages such as Latin and Greek by way of modern European languages like Swedish, French, and Dutch German.  

Examples of the Word in Context

Another good way to learn a word and apply it to your own vocabulary is to hear it used properly.  Reading it or hearing a word used in its correct context is a great way to learn how to use it yourself.  Here are some common examples of the word canvas (and its plural, canvases) in common conversation:

  • “Did you see that oil painting?  The colors he was able to bring out of the blank canvas with the oil paint are just truly breathtaking!”
  • “Raise anchor and drop canvas! We are taking to the seas, so lay out the sails.”
  • “That piece of canvas is going to be too small for this painting.  The client asked for something almost mural-like in its size, so we need something much larger.”

Synonyms for Canvas

As discussed previously, many of the synonyms for the word canvas are actually situational and have to do with the context that the word is used in.  However, learning a word’s synonyms can be an excellent way to solidify that word’s meaning in your head without having to memorize a complicated definition, so pull out your thesaurus.  Here are some common synonyms for the word canvas:

  • Sail: a word that describes older canvas when used on ships, usually back in the eighteenth century or before
  • Tarpaulin: a word that describes a canvas hung to protect something or someone from light, sun, or rain

In Summary

By reading this article, you should be fully prepared to use the word canvas and its plural forms in any context.  Just make sure that you are familiar with your audience, what they are used to, and what they can actually understand before you jump right in.  Good luck!