I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.
The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage.
Searching for furnitures thereunto (no quotation marks), I found various irrelevant legal phrases such as the furniture and appurtenances thereunto, but searching for “furnitures thereunto” (with quotation marks), I found a letter from Edmund Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh, outlining his poem The Faerie Queene (1590). A “tall clownish younge man” asks the queen for a “boone … which was that hee might haue the atchieument of any aduenture”. A “faire Ladye” enters, whose father and mother have been shut up in castle by a dragon for many years, and asks the queen to assign her one of her knights. The young man “vpstarting, desired that aduenture”. After some discussion, “the Lady told him that vnlesse that armour which she brought, would serue him … that he could not succeed in that enterprise, which being forthwith put upon him with dewe furnitures thereunto, he seemed the goodliest man in al that company, and was well liked of the Lady”. Very little of this actually appears in the poem, as far as I can actually understand the poem.
Searching for furnitures whatsoever, I found other legal verbiage, mainly from terms and conditions relating to the sale of furniture, for example “No claim of any nature whatsoever will be recognized unless made within ten days of delivery” (in which furniture isn’t even in the same sentence). Searching for “furnitures whatsoever”, I found a – I’ll call it an essay – by Francis Bacon titled Of the true greatneſs of the kingdom of Britain. It includes the following passage:
But if any man think that money can make thoſe proviſion at the firſt encounters, that no difference of valour can countervail, let him look back into thoſe examples which have been brought, and he muſt confeſs, that all thoſe furnitures whatſoever are but ſhews and mummeries, and cannot ſhrowd fear againſt reſolution.
Whatever that means. Thank goodness people don’t write like that now. (Those are ‘long Ss’, by the way.) But one use each more than 400 years ago is enough to make those two collocations show up on Google Ngrams.
To summarise, furnitures is a plain mistake in current-day standard English. But you knew that already.