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

The potato is an internationally recognized dietary staple for many cultures and demographics, but to be completely honest, its grammatical structure does carry a bit of mystery.  While some people jokingly argue about the pronunciation of tomayto or tomahto, potayto or potahto, the pluralization of the word potato (and the plural form of tomato) leaves some people with questions.  In this article, let’s explore the proper use of the noun potato, the exceptional rule of English spelling for how to pluralize it, look for its synonyms, and learn its context.

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Which is correct potatos or potatoes?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a potato as, “an erect South American herb (Solanum tuberosum) of the nightshade family widely cultivated for its edible starchy tuber”.  The correct plural form of potato, also according to Merriam Webster, is “potatoes”, and not the maybe more obvious and intuitive “potatos”, which would appear to be the easier way of pluralizing the word.  The reason for this exception to the construction of plural nouns has to do with etymology, which will be discussed later.

To make a long story short, English borrows (or just completely steals) most of its words from other languages rather than actually creating its own words, but that actually stems from the fact that the English speaking world also just sailed around the world “borrowing” (stealing) from every culture they discovered because that was just more exciting than actually creating something of their own.  So, in English words, the “rules” for pronunciation, spelling, and pluralization are often just suggestions because the exceptions often outnumber the rules.  

Can Potato be spelled with an E?

According to Grammarist.com, yes, technically some dictionaries list the word potatoe as a variant spelling of potato, but the variation is not very widely recognized, so if you are writing an academic paper or something along those lines, it might be a better idea to just keep your spelling to the simpler “potato”.  That way, you can avoid any confusion and not lose any points.  

The way language seems to work is that the things that are most used become the things that are correct.  For example, the commonality and usage of the word “selfie” actually caused the word to be added to the dictionary several years ago.  Culture dictates the prevalence of words, which in turn dictates the validity of certain spellings, pronunciations, or definitions.  Several words change their meaning or spelling over time due to cultural influence.

Why does the plural of potato have an E?

Technically, there is no actual lexical definition for why the plural of certain words differs, but it can result from a variety of sources.  First, like it was mentioned above, words, definitions, grammar, and pluralizations are all culturally influenced.  Therefore, the pluralization of potato may change over time .  Secondly,  the word actually has very distinct South American roots, whereas most of the words in English that follow the “ending in -o” pattern and have a more regular pluralization pattern come from Latin or Italian, while words that derive their origin from the Spanish or Greek languages often have different pluralizations.  

The following words are examples of plural nouns with the grammar rule to add es for o form plurals: veto (vetoes), archipelago (archipelagoes), buffalo (buffaloes), innuendo (innuendoes), mango (mangoes), and embargo (embargoes).  The majority (if not all) of these words derive their roots from Spanish or Greek origin rather than Latin or Italian.  Keep in mind that some o-ending words don’t fit in with this set of nouns though, like tacos or zoos. 

The History and Origin of the Word

The root of a word (no pun intended) and its history are called the word’s etymology.  The etymology of the word potato is derived from the Carib language of Haiti, and the original word was “batata”, which is translated sweet potato.  When the European Spaniards conquered much of South America in the sixteenth and seventeenth century (again, with the European conquests of the known world), they inevitably stole a lot of the South American culture, language, and food staples, incorporating it into their own language and culture.  The word “patata” in Spanish is the word that we get potato from today.

According to EtymOnline.com, “The name later (1590s) was extended to the common white potato, from Peru, which was at first (mistakenly) called Virginia potato, or, because at first it was of minor importance compared to the sweet potato, bastard potato. Spanish invaders in Peru began to use white potatoes as cheap food for sailors in the 1530s.”        

Examples of the Word in Context

Learning a word’s proper context is the best tool for learning how to use it properly in conversation or in writing.  Here are some very basic examples of the words potato and potatoes in their proper context.

  • “Sir, would you like a baked potato as your side for that entree?”
  • “Hey mom, do you need me to grab some potatoes from the grocery store for dinner tonight?  I know you mentioned wanting mashed potatoes and a veggie medley, but all we have are carrots.”
  • “The Western World stole several things from the indigenous peoples of North and South America, including their cultures, their languages, and their food staples, like corn in North America and potatoes in South America.”  

Synonyms for Potato

Finding synonyms for a word can also be a great way to learn how to use it properly, because you can compare it to the usage of similar words and use that to decide whether or not you are using it properly.  Some common synonyms for potato are:

  • Spuds, or Tuber, the actual fruit of a potato plant, the starchy part that we eat
  • Root vegetable, the broad term to describe a family of plants that produce food underground

In Summary

Hopefully this has helped you understand not only the plural of the word potato, but why the word potato has such an interesting rule set in the English language.  Now you know how to use it properly, so next time it comes up in a paper or in conversation, you are fully prepared!

Sources:

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/potato
  2. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=potato 
  3. https://grammarist.com/plurals/potato-and-potatoes-tomato-and-tomatoes/ 
  4. https://thewordcounter.com/words-that-start-with-d/
  5. https://thewordcounter.com/midnight-and-noon/
  6. https://thewordcounter.com/is-vs-are/