There are plenty of quotes from the movie The Godfather seared into people’s brains. Perhaps the most famous one is “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” A great line, written by a great writer, delivered by a great actor. But somewhere in the top five most memorable quotes from the movie is another famous quote: “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?

Is it Fishes or Fish?

The most common plural form of fish is indeed fish. However, under certain circumstances, you can use fishes. 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.

When Else Can You Say “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 of “Fish”

“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.”
“Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fish, has been linked with a lower risk of depression and dementia.”
The Scientific American
“More than 1,600 fish have died in a Somerset river polluted with slurry, the Environment Agency has said.”
“The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling The Star Spangled Banner, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.”
—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Examples of “Fishes”

“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.”
“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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