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Fish vs. Fishes–What’s the difference

Updated on
December 16, 2020
Grammar
  • The plural of fish is usually fish.
  • When referring to more than one species of fish, especially in a scientific context, you can use fishes as the plural.
  • The zodiac sign Pisces is also often referred to as fishes.

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One of the most memorable quotes from the movie The Godfather is: “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” In Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, which is the basis for the movie, that line is a bit different: “The fish means that Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “It’s an old Sicilian message.” But the movie version brings up an interesting question—isn’t fish the plural of fish? And, therefore, isn’t fishes incorrect?

When to use fish vs. fishes

The most common plural form of fish is indeed fish. However, under certain circumstances, you can use fishes as the plural form of fish. If you, for example, see two trout swimming together, you could say that you’re looking at fish. However, if the two trout were joined by a salmon, you could describe them as fish or fishes. Fish can refer to multiple fish, especially when they are all the same species of fish. Fishes, however, usually refers to multiple species of fish, especially in scientific contexts.

Other uses of fishes

The Godfather quote is one famous example of the word fishes. Another is the zodiac sign of Pisces, which is sometimes referred to as fishes. You can also say that someone fishes as a hobby, but that’s just a form of the verb “to fish.” Finally, there’s the saying “if fishes were wishes, we’d all cast nets,” which is commonly attributed to Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series.

Examples

New research suggests that fish can recognize human faces, putting to bed a previous theory that only animals with large brains, like primates, can accomplish such a complex task.
CBC

Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fish, has been linked with a lower risk of depression and dementia.
Scientific American

More than 1,600 fish have died in a Somerset river polluted with slurry, the Environment Agency has said.
BBC

Deep-sea hatchetfishes and dragonfishes use light-producing organs called photophores on their bellies for camouflage; the photophore patterns on their bellies mimic light streaming down from the surface and render the fishes effectively invisible to predators that might be looking up.
LiveScience

Elsewhere on the reef, small cleaner-fishes make their living by plucking parasites and algae from a variety of so-called client fishes who line up to wait their turn.
The New York Times

These are impressive cognitive feats for any animal. That they are performed by a fish clearly upsets the still commonly held assumption that fishes are at the dim end of the animal intelligence spectrum.
Scientific American

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