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Elfs vs. elves

As plurals of elf, both elfs and elves have long histories in English, and there is plenty of precedent for both, but elves has always been the more common form by far, and it remains so to this day. In 21st-century edited writing, it appears many times more often than elfs. The latter form, moreover, is mostly shunned by English reference books and doesn’t pass spell check, for what that’s worth.


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Elf differs from dwarf, which has two plurals—one for the real world (dwarfs) and one for fantasy worlds (dwarves). The difference in these plurals is useful because it distinguishes a varied collection of fantasy creatures from a varied group of real people, some of whom perhaps wouldn’t wish to be associated with the fantasy creatures. The case of elf is different because there are no real-life elves, so we have no need for a down-to-earth form to distinguish real people from fantasy creatures.

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Comments

  1. I once read some speculation that J.R.R. Tolkien either made up the word “Elves” (to separate them from the known mythological being “elf”) or adapted it from the Scandanavian “elver, alv, or älva.” I haven’t been able to find the sources I derived this particular opinion from as this was several years ago, nor have I found evidence of it in my recent searches, so perhaps this view is completely mistaken, but I wanted to get your take on it anyway as it has always interested me.

    • Grammarist says:

      Perhaps you are thinking of “dwarves,” which Tolkien popularized. It did exist before his books, but was very rare compared to “dwarfs,” and now, if our site stats are to be trusted, how to choose between “dwarfs” and “dwarves” is something that many people wonder about. (And there is an important difference: “dwarfs” is for real people, and “dwarves” is for people in fantasy worlds.)

      But the reasons you cite for Tolkien’s use of “elves” are intriguing, and if they exist we would be very interested in expanding this post to cover them. Obviously this post could use some fleshing out.

  2. Mojonixon says:

    I also recall either reading, or viewing a documentary, about Tolkien’s borrowing of words from Scandanavian sources, and I’m pretty sure ‘elves’ was one of them. I believe his ‘made up’ elvish-tongues were also based on old Scandanavian languages.

  3. J-J Cote says:

    Tolkein’s invented elven languages do have some connection to real languages, but not Scandinavian ones. Quenya is related to Finnish (which is not Scandinavian), and Sindarin to Welsh. And in those languages, the elves don’t refer to themselves as elves, but as “eldar”.

  4. djkc909 says:

    It does make one wonder, if the word “elfs” was acceptable once upon a time, that then once upon a time could it have also been possible that elfs were real people too, just like dwarfs? :)

  5. djkc909 says:

    It does make one wonder, though, that if the word “elfs” was acceptable once upon a time, that then maybe it could also have been possible, once upon a time, that elfs were real people too, just like dwarfs — that “elfs” referred to real world elfs, and “elves” to the ones from fantasy — that elfs were an actual ‘varied group of REAL people’… Once upon a time… :)

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