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r/explainlikeimfive
5.9k
Posted by2 months ago

eli5 why do we use "s" at the end of words with 0 quantity?

0 elephants

1 elephant

2 elephants

100 elephants

I understand the "s" for quantities larger than 1 because it's plural (more than 1) -- but why for 0, which is less than 1? Why does it just "feel more comfortable" (including for me)? Is there a logical reason behind it?

932 comments
93% Upvoted
level 1

Grammatically every numeral that is not 1 uses the plural. At least in english.

You would say there are 0.9 elephants instead of there is 0.9 elephant as well.

The reason it feels more comfortable to you is that learning the english language has trained you think that way. Other languages do it differently. And in casual english you could easily say something like there is no elephant at all. But if you use a numerical value it is just stuck in language and culture. Just a matter of being used to it.

3.4k
level 2

Yep, in French anything between -1.999... and 1.999 is singular because it's "not several", quite different from English.

935
level 2

In Hungarian every number gets a singular noun, it was weird learning English' use of plural

33
level 2

In Swedish it's the same. Only 1 elephant is singular. 0 and 2... Use plural

16
level 2

Since everybody is chiming in with examples of counting in different languages, here's Japanese:

1 = 一 (ichi) 2 = 二 (ni) 3 = 三 (San) 4 = 四 (yon) 5 = 五 (go)

Now let's count things.

One thing = 一つ (hitotsu) Two things = 二つ (futatsu)

So the pronunciations of the numbers change depending on what you're counting. You would think that "Five things" would be "gotsu" based on the pronunciations above, except it's not.

Five things = 五つ (itsutsu)

Not to mention there are like, maybe a billion different suffixes depending on what you're counting.

つ = thing (tsu) 枚 = flat things like sheets of paper (Mai) 匹 = (hiki) = animals, but only small to medium sized ones like dogs, cats, birds, etc. If you want to count big animals like elephants you need to use 頭 (tou).

The list goes on for days.

43
level 2

I think “there is no elephant at all” Is still following the rule. To me, that sentence implies they were expecting one elephant but were let down. If they were expecting multiple elephants, they’d probably say, “there aren’t any elephants”.

9
level 2

Is there an historical reason for this convention?

6
level 2

Interestingly, if I converted that to fractions, I would then use the singular. Nine tenths of an elephant.

31
level 2

In my idiolect of Portuguese, using the singular for 0 sounds wrong, but negative powers of 10 (0.1, 0.01, etc.) take the singular: “zero vírgula/ponto um centímetro”, “zero vírgula/ponto zero um centímetro”, but 0.2 is “zero vírgula/ponto dois centímetros”.

I literally never noticed this until this comment. I know some languages like Russian use the singular for numbers like 21, which I found bizarre and insane, but apparently I also do that to an extent.

8
level 2

what about "half an elephant"?

12
level 2

“There is no elephant” feels more like elephant is an abstract or otherwise non-discrete noun. “There is no water,” but “there are waters.” English grammar is weird

2
level 2

Even if it is equal to 1 but you add a decimal, it becomes plural. I have 1.0 elephants

2
level 2

I'm a programmer and a non-native English speaker. I just realized I've been doing it wrong. In school the simple exercise to pluralize when items is greater than one is like:

printf("Item%s.", count > 1 ? "s" : "")
2
level 2

This is what happens when you follow other languages down dark alleys and rough them up for loose vocabulary

2
level 2

I had never thought of this before and this explanation just made my night

2

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