What is the plural of "brother", "brothers" or "brethren"?

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In English books, I read that the plural of brother was given as brethren, but I hear people in movies or serials using brothers.

Which one is correct?

Is it the difference due to difference in American and British English?

user448

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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Answers

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Use brothers in both speech and writing.

Brethren is a very old plural which is no longer in use, except in very narrow contexts: in works of fiction which depict historical times, or try to create a similar 'atmosphere'; in religious (or quasi-religious) works which embrace the language of the King James Bible; and in works which allude to uses of this sort, either mockingly or affectionately.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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Out of curiosity: Would brethren (in the cases where it is used) be understood to be less sexist than brother and sister? – kiamlaluno – 2013-09-05T17:43:44.417

1@kiamlaluno I don't think that circles in which brethren is used worry much about sounding sexist. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-09-05T18:03:54.237

As usual, I don't ask the right question. I was not referring to those circles, but to how that word is understood outside. Is brethren used for people of both genders? If that is the case, does the word sound less sexist? I ask because I know people didn't like using mankind much. – kiamlaluno – 2013-09-05T19:45:23.017

1@kiamlaluno Brethren may be used in an inclusive sense by the people who use it, and that may be regarded as sexist by the people who don't. Those who use it belong for the most part to highly patriarchal subcultures where those who are concerned about sexism will find much more pressing issues to chafe at than the language! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-09-05T19:51:23.220

4Brethren is still used in certain modern religious scenarios. For example, some Churches might refer to the leaders of the church as the Brethren. Certainly you're right that this word is not in common spoken or written English though. – Matt – 2013-02-12T18:16:30.473

2@Matt I think that's covered in my second 'context', but I've made a small edit to make that clearer. These organizations (which aren't only churches - consider the Brethren of the Rosy Cross, for instance) use the old plural because it has an archaic, religious ring. And I suggest that ring derives primarily from the prestige of the KJV. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-12T18:27:21.487

No, brethren is not generally usually used for people of both genders; the corresponding word is sistren (sometimes sistern in old documents). I suppose that some formerly all-male organizations which have now let women in might use brethren for both sexes. – Peter Shor – 2014-07-04T18:04:53.373

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The plural of brother as in "male sibling" is always brothers.

He had six brothers and three sisters, so family gatherings tended to be large affairs.

The origin of brethren is an old type of plural for brother, but it is no longer used in that sense. Nowadays, it is only ever used in the context of fraternal or religious organizations: you can be a member of the brethren, but you don't have brethren.

Bottom line: 99.999% of the time, the plural you should use is brothers.

Martha

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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@StoneyB I hope the other person is not waiting for me to use it first when I am waiting for him/her to use it first. ;) – kiamlaluno – 2013-09-05T17:40:47.797

1Or: Don't use brethren unless somebody else uses it first. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-02-13T03:24:02.893

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Brothers is the correct term for referring to your male siblings.

In modern English, brethren is uncommon, and it no longer ever refers to your male siblings. It can be used in the following scenarios:

  1. To refer to members of your religious group (esp. some Protestant Christian groups)

    The Brethren are meeting on Sunday at 4 for Bible-study class at Julie's house.

  2. Uncommonly it can also refer to some other pseudo-religious or old fashioned clubs and societies:

    Meet Jeff. He is one of our Brethren from the Masons' in Bellingham here to visit for a week.

  3. To refer to members of your extended family (uncommon British English, esp. referring to extended family en-masse):

    We're going to my grandparent's house this Christmas. The entire Smith brethren are descending on Yorkshire, so we'll also be able to Christine and Jeff.

Matt

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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I might say, "I was stuck down in the mine for four days with my brethren," but, as Matt said, that would be highly unusual. I'd probably opt for "with my fellow miners" instead, unless, for some reason, I wanted to put some sort of religious connotation in my sentence. That sort of usage would be quite rare, though. – J.R. – 2013-09-05T09:32:29.307

One additional use is for members of a panel of judges. The member of the US Supreme Court, in particular, are sometimes called "Brethren" and there is a book about the court with that title. – Peter Flom – 2013-09-05T11:48:34.223

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In fraternal organizations founded back when archaic English was contemporary English (such as the Masons), "brethren" is used to make formal address to assembled brothers, or formal plural reference to brothers. In casual conversation, "brothers" seems to be usual.

There is a corresponding word for a sisterhood - "sistren" - which appears to be having a revival, if Google is any guide.

user8549

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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The word sistren may only be having a revival because it is displacing the (dialect) variant sistern. See Ngram.

– Peter Shor – 2014-07-04T18:10:45.067

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Those who also know basic Spanish grammar might find it easier to think of word like thee, ye, thou, brethren, and such as being like the formal "Vosotros" form, which have mostly been displaced by the less formal "Tu" form, of you, brother, yes, and such. When teaching English as a Second language, this made sense to the Hispanic kids when helping them with Shakespeare's English.

Nearoffutt

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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Brethren is mostly used to refer community faith which share common faith/belief/character....it further shows the connectdness between the group that is refered. The Holly bible especially KJV refers Brethren showing the Onenes/interconnectdness

Godlisten Moshi

Posted 2013-02-12T18:01:08.177

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Mixed-gender Odd Fellows lodges use both brethren and members interchangeably to refer to all members collectively, regardless of gender identity. – Davo – 2019-08-09T15:44:01.567