In Chinese, we have a proverb: 祸不单行, meaning bad things seem always to happen in a pair. The phase has been translated as "bad things happen in twos". However, I also see a common phrase in English "bad things happen in threes".

So, I have two questions here:

  1. Why two and three here are pluralized? What's the grammar here?
  2. Why is it common "bad things happen in threes", not "bad things happen in twos" in English? Why not any other numbers?
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    We do sometimes say "pairs" in English too, though it's less common. We also have many ways to phrase it; it's an idea more than a particular idiom. – Will Crawford Mar 8 '18 at 15:21

"Three" can mean "a set of three things". As such it is a regular noun, with a regular plural. We are speaking in general, so we use a plural.

I don't think there is any particular reason why we say "three". Perhaps when two bad things happen with just think it is coincidence, but when three bad things happen, we think there must be some magical "bad luck" at work. It is just a superstition.

Perhaps a person who believes this superstition sees something bad. Then something else bad happens. Because they have the superstition, they now look for another bad thing. Because they are looking for something bad, they find it! Now their superstition is confirmed. If a fourth bad thing happens - that is interpreted as the start of a new group of three. They remember the world according to their bias. The person who thinks bad things happen in pairs will interpret the same events according to their own bias.

Other superstitions use other numbers without there being any particular reason "Seven years bad luck" "Unlucky 13".


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