I'm considering whether to use singular or plural nouns in the following:

  1. John has no wife / wives.
  2. John has no child / children.
  3. There is no winner or loser in life.
  4. There are no winners or losers in life.

It seems that singular "wife" is correct in (1); plural "children" in (2). What about (3) and (4)? Are there any principles that can allow us to determine when to use singular or plural forms after "no"?

I'd appreciate your help.

  • Logically speaking, none of the variations are ungrammatical and all of them could be true. John not only doesn't have a wife but he also has no wives. (And in the context of societies that allow for multiple wives, it would even be meaningful.) You can pick whichever version you want. The only thing governing your choice is which sounds more natural semantically (and your personal preference). – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Aug 29 '18 at 14:19
  • wives could be correct in societies where polygamy is allowed. It's not a grammatical issue. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 29 '18 at 14:19
  • What's the difference between #3 and #4? – Apollyon Aug 29 '18 at 14:21

John is unmarried. John does not have a wife.

John is not a father. John has no children.

Life is not about winning and losing. There are no winners or losers in life.

The other variations you've posted are also grammatical, but they have slightly different meanings.

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  • Are there scenarios where #3 could be used? – Apollyon Aug 29 '18 at 14:22
  • could be used, sure. Is typically used, not really, not with in life. We would use the plural to refer to the general state of affairs there. The "generic plural". There is no winner or loser in this simulation would be perfectly grammatical. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 29 '18 at 14:23
  • What if we are not talking about different people? Suppose we wanted to say there are no objective criteria whereby an individual could be considered a winner or loser in life. Since there is only one winner or loser a person can be, just as there is only one man or woman a person can marry, can (3) be used in this case? – Apollyon Aug 29 '18 at 15:23
  • There is no winner or loser in life does not convey the idea that "it is impossible to determine objectively whether a person is a winner or a loser in life inasmuch as there are no objective criteria by which to judge". However, you might say "There is no winner or loser in life" in the context of discussing how it is impossible to judge, and a generous audience would understand you to mean "We simply cannot determine who is a winner and who is a loser." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 29 '18 at 15:33

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