Bowel vs. bowels



When are we supposed to use the bowel (in singular) and the bowels (plural), and what is the standard form?



It's not always clear whether to use bowel or bowels. Sometimes the two are interchangeable.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) includes in its entry for bowel,

  1. Often bowels. The intestine.
  2. A part or division of the intestine: the large bowel

In Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Collins Word, 1977), the first meaning for bowel is: an intestine, an entrail; especially a human entrail; generally used in the plural.

The Collins COBUILD (HarperCollins, 1995) places bowel and bowels together, indicating that they are very similar, almost interchangeable in use, and has these definitions:

    1. Your bowels are the tubes in your body through which digested food passes from your stomach to your anus.
    2. You can refer in a polite way to someone defecating by saying that they move, open, or empty their bowels.

It's possible to use the words interchangeably, but in certain expressions, one, not the other, is typically used.

    1. Use bowel, medically, to refer to a certain area of the digestive system, as a noun: the large bowel (intestine), the small bowel (intestine), or even the bowel to mean the intestine. People never say "the large bowels" or "the small bowels."
    2. Use bowels as a noun in certain expressions, such as "move one's bowels." The word bowels has a slightly less specific reference than does bowel, as in this sentence:
    3. Eating the strange new food upset his bowels to the extent that he could not leave his hotel.

    4. Use bowel as an adjective: a bowel movement, irritable bowel syndrome, bowel wall, bowel obstruction.

The word bowels, in the plural only, also has a literary or humorous meaning. You can refer to the parts deep inside something such as the earth, a building, or a machine as the bowels of that thing, as in "the bowels of the earth," and "deep in the bowels of the New York City subway system."

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