I'm writing a translation for a website and I don't know how to write a sentence when I don't know the subject's quantity. In the examples below, [quantity] is an unknown variable, it can be "one" or "two" and I can only write one sentence for these two cases.

So, should I write:

[quantity] item(s) has-have been found


[quantity] item(s) has/have been found

or something else I don't know?

Thank you in advance.

Update: I'm an intern translating an existing website with strict orders from my superiors, I would have handle the translation differently if I could but it is not possible. Anyway, thank you for your answers!

  • 6
    Since all you have to do is check for [quantity] = 1, many programmers go to the trouble of altering the form of the noun that follows (Google Books, for example, says 1 result found, but it's results found for all other values. You should copy them and just don't bother with the unnecessary verb has/have. If for some reason you can only use one fixed format text string, I wouldn't bother with any of it - just use [n] items found for all values of n. – FumbleFingers May 26 '14 at 16:18
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    @FumbleFingers: At least it's simple as long as you only need to do it in English. Once you start really internationalizing your software, it gets fun. – Ilmari Karonen May 26 '14 at 17:46
  • @Ilmari: Haha - that takes me back! 30 years ago I thought I was "leading edge" because I used things like printf ("%d file%s deleted", n, n == 1 ? "" : "s"); (back when every last byte was precious! :) 10 years after that I wrote a system where the users had to maintain their own table for every language they wanted, so it became printf ("%d %s",n, usr_txt_files_deleted); As implied by my first comment, I never really bothered with the singular/plural issue after that. But it was an interesting diversion at the time, so thanks for the trip down memory lane! <sigh> – FumbleFingers May 26 '14 at 21:07
  • As the various coding and/or rewriting solutions illustrate, this is a well-known issue and the best answer is usually to avoid the problem. – keshlam May 26 '14 at 23:44
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    Honestly, the problem is that English clearly needs a good refactoring. – Codeswitcher May 26 '14 at 23:54

Since you can't do it correctly, you might try something like this instead:

[quantity] item(s) found

Deleting the perfect and passive auxiliaries means you no longer have a finite verb, which means the verb doesn't have to change form to agree with the subject. This is much preferable to writing has/have everywhere.

This isn't Standard English grammar, but it's probably fine in a user interface. People are used to seeing things like this on computers and in other situations where space is at a premium. In particular, a similar reduced grammar called headlinese is often used in headlines.

The parentheses are a little clunky, but if you don't include them you'll end up saying "1 items found" when there's only one result, and this is undesirable. Since it's a compromise either way, it's up to you whether you want to include them or not.

  • Thank you for your answer! Just for curiosity: when you have two possible choices in a sentence, do you write ... a/b... or ...a-b...? E.g. "his/her" or "his-her"? – Armand Grillet May 26 '14 at 17:10
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    A forward slash would be preferable (A/B), but even better is not to present two alternatives in that manner. – snailplane May 26 '14 at 17:24
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    Also, using "their" is acceptable as a gender neutral possessive determiner, as opposed to "his/her", and "they" as opposed to "he/she". – Lou May 26 '14 at 20:54

Could you not try this?

Total items found: [quantity]

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