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

Welcome to using the English language, a language so complicated and convoluted that it even breaks its own rules more often than it follows them.  This is partially due to the fact that English is a mashup of several different languages and borrows its etymology, definitions, spellings, and grammar concepts from all of the various languages that have donated components that make up what we call modern English today.  

One such word that is completely borrowed from the etymological additions that other languages make to English is the word “passerby.”  This word has a very complicated background and history, and as such, its grammatical forms and pluralization do not follow any typical rules that most words follow.  In this article, let’s explore the proper use of our word of the day passerby, the plural form of passerby, look for its synonyms, and learn its context.

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How Do you Spell Passerbys?

The first step in ever understanding a word or its grammatical rules is to establish its definition.  To learn it properly, you must first learn what it means.  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition of passerby is “one who passes by.”  This definition may seem fairly boring, intuitive, and straightforward, but it also hides a rich history.  The word does not seem to have wide usage within spoken communication or written modern literature, but it is one of those idioms with a fairly rich use seen throughout older, more medieval or colonial literature, which will be visited later on.

The correct spelling of the plural of passerby, according to the dictionary, is actually passersby, not passerby, similar to mothers-in-law, but without the hyphens.  While some contexts allow for the plural form of passerby to be passerbys, this is much more rare.  Plural nouns like these don’t fit into our standard rules of pluralization. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that the English dictionary, by definition (no pun intended), can not become the definitive authority on all things grammar or spelling.  Language is directed by and created by culture, and so it must conform to the needs of a society at any given time.

It is important to note that in any form of communication, the way you most effectively convey a message is by communicating in the way that your audience needs.  Therefore, knowing your audience and learning what they consider to be the most effective method of sharing information is important, regardless of the oddities of English nouns.  Learn what they want to hear and how they need to be communicated with, and you will learn how to best balance your own communication and vocabulary. 

What Is the Singular of Passersby?

The singular of passersby is just passerby.  This word definitively has a peculiar pluralization, but the plural suffix is in part due to its etymology, which will be discussed in the next paragraph.  For now, it is important to realize that English just does not follow the rules sometimes.  There are words that you just have to know, rather than memorizing rules for their grammar.

This is what makes English such a difficult language to learn, unfortunately.  People who learn English as a second or even a third language struggle to balance the rules with the exceptions, because it seems at times that they outnumber the rules.  

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 passerby is actually the etymological product of two words; unsurprisingly, the words pass and by.  The word was originally used in the middle of the sixteenth century and was quite possibly introduced to English by William Shakespeare, who was notorious for adding such words into the language.

The word pass entered the English through the Latin word “passare,” which is a verb that means to step, walk, or pass” and was derived from the Latin word “passus,” which was a noun that meant “step or pace.”  Much of the English language has come through ancient languages like Latin or Greek by way of other European languages such as Spanish, Italian, or French.

Examples of the Word in Context

Another great way to learn how to use a word properly is to learn how to use it in context.  Reading or hearing someone else use the word correctly will cement it in your vocabulary.  Here are some example sentences with the word passerby (and the plural form of the word) being used in context:

  • “The police report listed eyewitness reports from several passersby who heard gunshots from both inside the shop and outside in the alley, all around the same time.”
  • “He was helped by a passerby who saw him fall, called an ambulance, and then waited around to keep him shaded while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.”
  • “The walkthrough rate for passersby into the small shop was very low, prompting the owner to hire somebody to stand outside and invite customers in.”
  • “Find a passerby and ask them for directions; we don’t know our way around this city, and I’m sure someone will be willing to point us in the right direction.”

Synonyms for Passerby

Exploring similar words is the last good way to really understand how to properly implement a word into your own vocabulary.  Here are some common synonyms for the word passerby:

  • Bystander, a word that describes a casual observer of a situation that does not interfere or interject
  • Witness, a word that describes someone who happened to be in the area of an event and noticed it happening
  • Onlooker, a word that describes someone who observes a scenario unfold

In Summary

By reaching the end of this article, you are now prepared to use the word passerby in any communication, either written or spoken.  Good luck!