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How to Use “Calves” and “Calfs” Correctly

Updated on September 23, 2022Grammar

Words ending with an f can sometimes be troublesome for English speakers. They are easy enough to use in the singular, but when the time comes to transform them into plurals, things can get tricky. For some of them, as with gulf or chief, you only need to add an s to create the plural—gulfs and chiefs. With others, such as leaf and shelf, you need to replace the f with vesleaves and shelves. But in some cases, as with the plural of calf, it seems that you can form the plural both ways. But one of the two ways has to be better than the other, right? For calf, calves is a better plural, at least for now.

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Calf meaning and usage

When you say calf, you can mean three different things:

1 A young mammal, usually a bovine, but also an elephant, deer, or whale:

On Monday, officials said that the calf had been euthanized a week after visitors picked the animal up and put it in the back of an S.U.V.

2 The back part of your lower leg:

The muscles of their calves and upper arms were like cannonballs.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

3 A piece of ice that broke off from a bigger iceberg or glacier:

Once Kleist and his crew lassoed the ice calves, they were dragged back into the harbor, lifted up by heavy cranes, stored in icehouses, and then transferred by container ship to Denmark before a ten-hour trip, in a truck, to Paris.

Calves or calfs—Which is correct?

As you can see from the examples, calf uses -ves ending for its plural form. Most dictionaries would agree, if you were to look it up. However, Merriam-Webster, lists calfs as an option for the plural of calf, especially when using the word as plural for calfskin. And if you think that’s a mistake, you might be surprised to find that calfs is indeed used:

Could you sleep if you worried that a stranger was watching? Relax in your bathrobe if someone was taking pictures of your hairy calfs?
The Denver Post

This is especially important toward the end of Hawaii’s whale-watching season, which winds down in May, when humpback whales are still nursing their new calfs and preparing for their long journey back to Alaskan waters.
The Huffington Post

While a closer look shows that calves is still the more widely used form, we cannot but wonder if this is one of the ways in which the English language is changing. After all, it does change all the time. Maybe, someday, calfs will become the dominant plural form of calf, but for now it comes second to calves. If you’re not talking about calfskin, that is.

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