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I know that -たち and -ら pluralize the nouns they come after (or indicate a group that the noun is part of), but most of the time the plural in Japanese is implicit. When is it appropriate or necessary to use -たち or -ら?

(Bonus question: is there any difference except formality between -たち and -ら?)

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6 Answers

「~方」 (「~がた」), 「~達」, and 「~等」 have the same meaning as "et alia" or "and company" in English; you use it when you mean one person (any of the three suffixes) or animal (「~達」 and 「~等」 only) and all the others that are attending them (e.g. 「アマンダさん方」).

「~方」 is honorific and 「~達」 is neutral, but 「~等」 is deprecating or familiar and so should usually only be used with family or the first person unless you have a specific reason for it.

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Note that ~ら is used more like ~たち without pejorative connotations in Kansai-ben, though. And I think 彼ら is common even in standard speech, but you still wouldn't use it in reference to superiors. –  Kef Schecter Jun 19 '11 at 3:31
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This doesn't relate to the necessity/appropriate-ness of when you use them necessarily, but it's related to the topic in general. So I'll post it.

Note that there are several other ways to pluralize things, but their usage is very limited:

ども: Used as a very humble plural. 広辞苑 cites 「私ども」and 「身ども」. I've heard of the former, but apparently 「身ども」 was used in old samurai speech.
とも: Means "all" when added to another noun. 「3人ともパーティーにいった」(All three of them went to the party); 「りんごは5つとも腐っていた」(All five of the apple were rotten).

Also, concerning ら, it is often used to "pluralize" places/areas (at least in Kansai-ben); often formed with ~辺(へん).

梅田ら辺(うめだらへん)- the area(s) around Umeda; あそこら辺 - those places/areas over there.

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ども is actually used sarcastically these days and is extremely rude, like 貴様。 –  Avery Morrow Jul 30 '12 at 5:01
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Adding to the previous answer, I feel that usage with the so-called Japanese pronouns is somewhat of a special case. For one, the plural cannot be implied without adding a suffix. 私, 彼, 彼女 and あなた alone never mean (approximately) we, they or the plural you. Secondly, I don't think adding ~達 or ~等 has the nuance of putting an emphasis on any one individual in the group, as they do when used with other nouns.

Also, one more pluralizing method, though one that is used very restrictively - both in regard to vocabulary and style, is reduplication. It's used mostly with natural landmarks (山々、木々) and (in child-language and as a dual) body parts (目々 etc.).

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This probably applies to any word that can be used as pronoun. ひと in itself can easily stand for both a single person and many of them, but once you add あの, あのひと would always stand for one person. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 19 '11 at 7:08
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When is it appropriate or necessary to use -たち or -ら?

  • The suffixes are very appropriate when you're refering to a group of people, for example: 君達、お前ら. That's what a teacher would say to his students. In that case, it seems to me that ら is quite harsh.

お前ら、なにしているのかい? (angry guy addressing a group of noisy youngsters)

君達には明るい将来があります! (schoolmaster during graduation ceremony)

マイク達と一緒に飲んでいたんだ (youngster telling his mother he was out drinking with Mike and his other pals)

  • The suffix ら is used in formal writing to mean "et al.", and written in kanji, as in this famous scientific publication written by 小林等
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I think this sounds like what Ignacio meant by ら being depreciating (the usage I'm familiar with). But take a look at these examples. This is the type of usage the the bounty is intended for. –  Louis Jul 27 '12 at 5:41
    
(たち seems almost as common here) –  Louis Jul 27 '12 at 5:48
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@Axioplase: Do you have a reference on your last claim? I feel as if the reading とう or maybe など is more likely here... –  Zhen Lin Jul 27 '12 at 7:07
    
@ZhenLin: For my last claim, I have several years of experience doing academic research in Japan. But suddenly, you make me doubt… I've often read "ら", and I'm pretty sure the kanji was used as well. –  Axioplase Jul 27 '12 at 8:24
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I Agree with Zhen's comment. Or, 他{ほか} is also used. –  sawa Jul 28 '12 at 20:41
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Unfortunately I don't have a good answer, but I do have one fact to toss out there, since it doesn't look like anyone else has yet. A number of Japanese linguistics texts I've seen indicate that it's a fallacy that -たち and -ら are pluralizers. Rather, it's claimed that their meaning is qualitative rather than quantitative, and it's merely that most cases where they are used are also plural semantically (correlation rather than causation). I know I've seen (though I don't recall in which article it was) counterexamples where they're used with singular meaning. That said, I don't well understand what they actually mean.

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The only counterexample I can currently recall is 「[友達]{ともだち}」, but I'm sure there are a few more. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jul 30 '12 at 0:40
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In my experience, -たち, is used when it's necessary to emphasize plurality. I've also seen -ら used the same way, but only in familiar circles. That's not to say that it would be insulting to use -ら for people with whom you are not acquainted, but that's just what I've observed.

An example is when I was on my exchange program in Japan. We were getting our picture taken at 白川郷. All us students were ready to get our picture taken, and then the guy taking the picture said "先生も!" Only the one professor came up to get her picture taken so the guy says "先生たちきてよ!" and so they all came up. So that's an example of a situation where it's necessary to clarify plurality.

Additional, I've only seen -たち and -ら used for a group of people, such as 私たち, 僕たち、先生たち, and even 子供たち. I've also seen あなたら,僕ら (us, I've heard that in songs a lot), おまえら, and 彼ら (they, them). So generally I only use it for that specific set of words. That being said, I would say that -ら itself isn't deprecating or informal, but rather that it is only applied to deprecating or informal pronouns.

Hope this helps!

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