By Centaurus

2015-12-01 23:45:38 8 Comments

  • riffraff (noun) people who are not respectable : people who have very low social status.

Merriam-Webster doesn't say anything about number. The Free Dictionary says it can sometimes function as a plural noun but doesn't explain when or how. Google books doesn't help much, there are several examples of it both as a singular and a plural noun.

  1. In every period of transition this riffraff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface.

  2. This riffraff are waiting for the cheap seats.

Looking at these two sentences, I can't find any structural difference that might lead one to use a singular or a plural verb. If one is writing a paper on social science and they want to use the word "riffraff", does it matter which verbal number is used?


@Dunsanist 2016-05-19 13:53:40

I suspect that because 'riffraff' is a kind of double word, like 'odds and ends' or 'this and that' or 'knick knacks', it automatically has a sense of plurality. On the other hand, because you are lumping people together and dismissing them, it also has the sense of an undifferentiated mass, therefore singular.

There's no reason why you would expect the grammar to be nailed down. The word probably isn't used often enough for that, and when it is the sour smell it has probably keeps grammarians away. If someone objects to your use of the term, they're hardly likely to focus on your grammar. That would just make them seem like an uber-snob.

"How dare you say 'that worthless, despicable riffraff'! It should be 'THOSE worthless, despicable riffraff'!"

@user66974 2015-12-02 00:01:03

According to OLD both singular or plural verb can be used.


  • [uncountable + singular or plural verb] (disapproving)

    • an insulting way of referring to people of low social class or people who are not considered socially acceptable

Riffraff (sometimes hyphenated—riff-raff)

  • is a derogatory term for people the speaker considers socially inferior or undesirable. It’s a centuries-old term, having come to English from French around 1500. In modern use, the word is usually humorous or ironic. When used sincerely as a term for homeless or poor people (as in the final example below), it can make the writer sound stuck-up or insensitive.

  • The word has been spelled many ways through its history in English, but riffraff and riff-raff have been standard for a century or more, and both of those forms now appear throughout the English-speaking world (though the hyphenated form has the edge). Rift-raft is a misspelling.

    • It is the ghetto in which the riffraff or ‘dregs’ live their own life, isolated from the life of the rest of society. [Open Democracy]

    • The streets are clear of the usual riff-raff of the collegiate types, and the parties move out of homes and into offices. [Montana Kaimin]

The Grammarist

  • 1545 R. Ascham Toxoph. (Arb.) 155 The common wealthe can be content to take..the rifraffe of the worlde, to make those instrumentes of.

  • 1593 G. Harvey Pierce's Super. Wks. (Grosart) II. 65 The riffe-raffe of the scribling rascality -

@WS2 2015-12-02 00:10:59

I don't know who publishes the Oxford Learners Dictionary, or quite what credence on can place on such a thing. To begin with it does seem quite ridiculous to claim that the term riffraff is uniquely British. The two examples I have given in my answer were both American. I even found one example from the pen of none other than George Washington!

@Matt Samuel 2015-12-02 00:16:59

@WS2 George Washington's language use doesn't really indicate much about modern American English. He was president over 200 years ago.

@user66974 2015-12-02 00:32:24

@WS2 - as for the "credence on such a thing" you can see here :

@WS2 2015-12-02 00:47:08

@Josh61 Yes, those dictionaries are published by Oxford University Press which is highly credible. If OUP attaches its name to anything you can be sure it is kosher. But I can't find anything on that site about Oxford Learners Dictionary, nor for that matter about one that I often use Oxford Dictionaries Online. One cannot simply accept anything that has the name Oxford in front of it. Oops - sorry, yes you are right I have just found OLD - Ok point taken.

@Peter Shor 2016-05-19 13:58:43

@WS2: As an American, I can say that the word riffraff is alive and well here.

@WS2 2015-12-01 23:58:17

I looked through the entry in the OED, and among all the senses of riff-raff applying to people I could not find a single example where the word had been used as the subject of a sentence. That is not to say that it couldn't be so used, but it provided no opportunity to determine whether it called for a singular or plural conjugation.

However one sense of riff-raff applies to worthless goods - trash. And there was an example of the subject in that category as follows:

2009 Eureka (Calif.) Times Standard (Nexis) 20 Feb. Now a days one can easily tote their favorite records with them on a small pocket-sized contraption and make no bother with the other riff-raff that comes with the purchase of a CD.

As you can see it has been given a singular conjugation.

There was this one example, as regards people, where the word itself was given plural form:

2001 Ledger Disp. (Calif.) (Nexis) 4 Jan. 1 He conveniently left out an entire gender, African and Native Americans, and most of the rest who were considered riffraffs.

In conclusion I do not honestly think it matters in the least whether you make it singular or plural. Nobody is going to notice.

@user66974 2015-12-02 00:13:39

Sorry my mistake in copying and pasting, BrE refers to the pronunciation.

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