23

In the sentence

"She says she has no friends"

even though the number of friends is zero (less than two), why is "friends" still plural?

I learnt the rule that if a countable noun is two or more, it is written in the plural form. Therefore, the determiner "no" in this specific case really confuses me.

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  • 4
    If a countable noun is more than one, it is written as a plural. Mar 18 at 11:14
  • 8
    Does this answer your question? Singular or plural nouns after "No" Mar 18 at 11:15
  • 8
    "She has no friend" is also correct and means essentially the same thing. It's just a less common phrase.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 18 at 21:47
  • 1
    I'm not sure "determiner"(and its weaselly subdivision "quantifier") are useful concepts in the context of the role of no in the example utterance. Imho it's more helpful to just think of no as a simple negator. Then it becomes much easier to compare the implications of She has friends and She has a friend with or without the negator. I know that implies I somehow have to "explain away" how come the article a friend disappears in the negated singular no friend. But terminology isn't everything when it comes to natural language. Mar 18 at 22:35
  • 3
    @JimmyJames It's not a question of correctness, you can be grammatically correct and still sound extremely unnatural in conversation (everyone knows this who has studied a foreign language). Mar 20 at 9:44

11 Answers 11

44

It's just that the normal expectation is she would have several friends.

We use the singular in contexts like He has no wife, or I have no car. We tend to use "do-support" or "got-support" anyway (He doesn't have a wife, I haven't got a car), so such assertions don't always sound completely natural regardless of the plurality.

Note that I have no son is likely to be bitter exaggeration from a father "disowning" his only son, whereas I have no sons is more likely if someone is lamenting the fact that he has no sons, whereas he would like to have several.


EDIT: (inspired by @DavidK's comment)
Suppose someone is standing in front of a "Beware of the dog!" sign. They'd probably say I see no dog or I don't see any dog in the singular, because they're only expecting to see one anyway.

But if they were on a country walk with a friend who'd just said There are hundreds of rabbits in these fields, they'd probably use the plural I see no rabbits or I don't see any rabbits.

It really is just contextual expectation that governs the plurality of "thing(s) whose existence is denied by the preceding word no".

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    That makes no sense to me. He has no wives is perfectly natural English in contexts where some other people like him have multiple wives. Mar 18 at 16:13
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    "He has no friend. Not even one" would always be "marked", but it's certainly possible. Not really in normal conversation, but it's a perfectly good "literary, poetic" way of providing emphasis. Mar 18 at 22:12
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    @Jay The question is about the plural vs. singular noun, not the verb. In "He has no wife", the noun "wife" is singular because the expectation is that he would otherwise have one, singular, wife.
    – kaya3
    Mar 18 at 22:47
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    @gotube: That's just speculation on your part. Since the OP is a non-native speaker, we shouldn't assume he's interested in the plurality of the (ridiculous and ungrammatical, imho) noun phrase [she has] zero friends just because the word zero gets used a couple of times. It seems far more likely to me (and those upvoters who arrived here when it became a "Hot Network Post") that the core of the question is Why is it "no friends" and not "no friend"? All this guff about "zero friends" is just pointless distraction from the real question, imho. Mar 19 at 11:30
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    My gut feeling is that the use of zero [noun](s) to mean no [noun](s) is somewhat recent – but it is old enough that it is now completely unremarkably and of absolutely doubtless grammaticality to me. “I have zero interest in” (with quotes) gives me nearly half a million Google hits, and Ngrams show a sharp increase since ~1980. I don’t think shrugging off such constructions as ‘virtually ungrammatical’ is useful here, because they are very widely used. Mar 19 at 15:26
42

The rule is not "two or more". The rule is "not equal to one". Zero takes a plural verb. "Zero books are on the shelf", NOT "Zero books is on the shelf." Likewise for words that mean zero, like "no" or "none". "None of the books are red", NOT "None of the books is red." "No dogs are here", NOT "No dogs is here". Etc.

You could say "She has no friends" or "She has no friend". Both are valid and it would be difficult to say if there is a difference in meaning between the two. That is, "no" can take either a singular or a plural noun. If you said, "She has zero friends", you must use the plural. You can't say, "She has zero friend". In the case of zero, the rule is, like for verbs, not "two or more" but "not one".

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    But "no man is an island".
    – Stuart F
    Mar 18 at 12:35
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    This is a good point. I find that learners coming from languages lacking numeric inflection often misapply arithmetic to determine grammatical number, which doesn't work and can lead to errors in constructing correct sentences such as the following: An idea is good. No idea is good. Ideas are good. No ideas are good. More than one idea is good. Fewer than two ideas are good. The last two are especially prone to error.
    – tchrist
    Mar 18 at 12:58
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    I was always taught that None of the books is red was correct (none meaning not one). Mar 18 at 13:00
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    The question doesn't ask why the verb is in the singular! It asks why the noun is singular (why don't we say "She has no friend") Mar 18 at 16:16
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    I really can't understand why this answer keeps getting upvotes. The question is nothing to do with the plurality of zero, and in any case, constructions like "Zero books are on the shelf" are barely grammatical in the first place. The plurality of (one or more things or people) depends entirely on context, and sometimes both can be available with slightly different nuances depending on contextual focus and/or expectation: No man is an island, but No men are to be trusted. Mar 18 at 22:23
7

In English we use the basic form of a noun for a count of exactly one, and the plural form for every other number.

It's hard to say why that is - that's just the rule in English.

The rules are different in other languages. For instance in French zero is treated like one. The Unicode consortium, which promotes multi-lingual computing, has a nice comparison table showing the rules in many languages: Language Plural Rules.

It's intended as a reference for people making software, but may be interesting.

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    There is no such rule. I have no idea why you would say that. But I have no way of stopping you. Today we had no receptionist on the front desk, and there was no coffee break in the afternoon. This evening there was no performance at the opera house, and there was no game on at the football stadium. My dog has no nose. Then how does he smell? Terrible! Mar 19 at 0:52
  • @JamesMartin: "I call my dog Isaiah", "Really? Why's that?", "'Cos 'e's got one eye's 'igher than the other!". That's the best I can do for a joke, but I will just say it would be "My dog's got no eyes" in a "visual equivalent" to the missing olfactory organ. Precisely because we expect one nose and two eyes. Mar 19 at 1:31
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    @JamesMartin All your examples are negative sentences by they conceptually involve the number one. The main negated scenario you would think of is where you have one of those things not many. As FumbleFingers showed If you have zero of something where one is not a typical amount of it then you use the plural. There are no peas on my plate.
    – bdsl
    Mar 19 at 10:53
  • @bdsl: Exactly! There are no peas in the saucepan, and there is no chicken in the oven. We certainly wouldn't be likely to say There is no pea in the saucepan, and there are no chickens in the oven. Mar 19 at 20:22
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    @bdsl Yes indeed! and that's what you should be explaining if you want to answer the question. No use just saying that "no" always goes with the plural of a countable noun, since quite often it doesn't. Mar 19 at 22:38
4

You mean "if a countable noun is two or more it is plural! We also usually use the plural with no.

She has no friends is the same as She doesn't have any friends. (Like the old song "Yes, we have no bananas".)

This Ngram shows that "...has no friend" was used more often in the past - but it is usually used when some description of the non-existent friend is added.

Poor Charles has no friend in the house.

He has no friend who is worthy of the name.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. It's not common to say She has no friend, but syntactically that's perfectly valid, as is He has no wife. And we'd only expect plural He has no wives if we were talking about someone from a polygamous society (not common among Anglophone cultures!). Mar 18 at 16:21
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    I was just trying to explain that "has no friends/apples/books/whatever" is correct and normal, but "has no friend" isn't always wrong. Mar 18 at 16:45
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    Yes, but the way you've presented things implies that the only context where singular has no X works is if the utterance includes some adverbial element limiting the scope of "X" - in such a way that the important distinction is between no X's and even one X. Which I suppose is true when it comes to whether the average |Anglophone male has a wife or not. I'd also just mention I'm not convinced Yes, we have no bananas is helpful here. To the average Anglophone, that's at least to some extent a "parody" ("marginal" grammar from non-Anglophone growers / sellers). Mar 18 at 16:59
2

"No" in this context is a determiner, and has two similar, but slightly different, meanings. Sometimes it means "not a", in which case it takes the singular, just like "a" by itself, and sometimes it means "not any", in which case it (can) take the plural, just like "any" by itself. Note that there is no language that has a "nullary" number, as "zero" as a concept is actually quite recent, it was always "not a", or "not any", or "not (whatever determiner best suited the grammatical number of the noun in question)". As a result, nullary determiners ("no" in English) have variable number within languages, and the word for "zero" has variable number across languages (in English, it's plural, in French, it's singular).

Confusing? Yes. But then, so is the concept of nothing as something

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  • There are plenty of examples where it's grammatical to use a singular noun with "any". According to Ngrams, the phrase "any man" is much more common than "any men", for example; likewise "any student" vs. "any students". Consider sentences like "If any student arrives late in school, without an authorised absence, they will receive a sanction."
    – kaya3
    Mar 19 at 17:01
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    I like your point about "zero" as a concept is actually quite recent, which I think is relevant here. And of course, "zero" as a "determiner / quantifier" is extremely recent. Until about 20 years ago, it almost never occurred except as the "jargon" set phrase "zero tolerance" (which itself only really popped up in the late 60s / early 70s). Now it's used as a general-purpose "negating quantifier" everywhere. Mar 19 at 22:05
2

Because English, as usual, is just unpredictable

For countables, "zero" uses plural. For uncountables, zero can use singular. That's why you have zero friends (you can have 2 - countable) and have zero interest in something (you can have some, or a lot - uncountable)

As is tradition in English, there are always exceptions. For example, both "zero interests" and "zero interest" exist, because they both refer to distinctly different concepts: former is a stake in a certain area (has nothing to do with desire for knowledge), latter is the want to know more (has nothing to do with loss or gain), then there's a different "zero interests" as in you have no desire to know about anything

Then there's ANOTHER kind of exception. If you're referring to a known subject, then you defer to that. For example, if you're out in the wilds and observe the distinct lack of dogs, you say "there are zero dogs", because you're talking about the concept of "dog" in general If you see a sign saying "beware of dog" and you notice the dog in question is not there, then you say "there is zero dog", because now you're talking about a specific dog, not just any dog

Normally however, you'd use "no dog(s)" because you're not trying to count, you're just observing the binary yes/no of the existence of a concept.

2

The rule two or more is not as correct as the rule not one. The rule should be "Add an 's' if the number of items is not (positive) one."

The following sentences are correct:

  • "I have one car."
  • "My friend has two cars."
  • "After losing fifty percent of my car to rust, I now own 0.5 cars."
  • "After losing fifty percent of my car to rust, I now own half a car."
  • "I had one car. Then I gave away two cars. That leaves me with -1 cars."
1

When we say a thing.. "a" denotes one as in singular.

Everything else, including zero, is plural.

If there isn't something signifying that it's a singular item then it's best to presume that it's plural.

An example that often trips up people is the difference between "people" and "person"... If we are talking about a single identifiable person or idea of a person then it's singular... If we are talking about many identifiable or countable individuals than it would be "persons"... And if it is a group of people that are not individually countable or identifiable then you would say "people"... If there are multiple groups of people that are separately identifiable then you would say something such as "both peoples"...

The indigenous people of North America and the indigenous people of South America to together combined to be "the peoples of North and South America".

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    I don't think the fact that people can be seen as the "plural" of (etymologically unrelated) person - but is itself singular, and can thus be regularly pluralised to peoples - is relevant to the question. Mar 19 at 1:18
  • Thank you for the feedback. (Sincere) Mar 20 at 5:21
0

It has to do with context. If it is part of a paragraph, and if in the conversation the topic is friends (plural), and a question is asked or the subject breached of her friends (plural), then the answer or sentence addressing the discussion should be within the same logic.

Example:
Bob has lots of friends. Jimmy has a few friends. But Lisa, I think that she says she has no friends.

friends. friends. friends.

"Bob has lots of friends," is a description of how many friends (plural).

"Jimmy has a few friends," is a description of how many friends (plural). The conversation is already about friends (plural), and in this description few could actually be one. But, to keep with the conversation, the plural version is used, and also because of the potential or more than one.

"But Lisa, I think that she says she has no friends," follows or is conversationally aligned inside of the paragraph with a description of how many friends (plural) that a person has. Having used two descriptions that include the plural "friends," has set a precedent of using the plural until the end of the paragraph. It could be set by one use, but for a stronger example you see here two.

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    So if the conversation revolved around the topic of jobs, plural, e.g. A I've two jobs at the moment. B I know someone who has three different jobs. C I have no jobs. Would C's reply still be OK?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21 at 10:02
  • @mari-Lou, Yes. It would be OK. I was addressing the question which asked "why is "friends" still plural?" If the conversation was about a plural, then it is OK to answer with a plural. - That does not mean that to answer with a singular, such as, "I have no job," would not be OK also. It would be OK also, depending upon the person making the statement and their intent to change the conversation or not. Again, it has to do with the context of the conversation. We are given one sentence without sufficiently more of the conversation to judge the sentence. I leave out what was already left out.
    – Line Item
    Mar 31 at 1:34
  • @Mari-LouA, yep, changing the count in a reply is okay. As in I've two jobs at the moment, could be replied to with I just have one job. Negating works too, Well, I don't have TWO jobs. In that case "two" is so specific, that the negation is very strong, making that response almost certainly sarcastic or condescending. I don't know why, but negating something specific is rude. As in, for I went to the store, parked, looked up, and saw a blimp, a rude response would be No, you did not go to the store, look up, and see a blimp.
    – yeerk
    Apr 12 at 5:22
  • @yeerk Referring to my comment, you agree that "I have no job" is an appropriate response which was the point I was trying to make which conflicts with Line Item's claim "friends. friends. friends". Your example is rude not because of the specific number being repeated “You did not … and see a blimp” but because the speaker is telling someone they are a liar.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 12 at 7:42
  • @Mari-LouA, I have no job is a negation, where as I have two jobs at the moment is counting. This makes it a bit of an awkward reply, as it is usually expected for you to either change the count, or negate the question. Doing both will be understood, but is a bit unnatural.
    – yeerk
    Apr 12 at 21:17
0

It depends on the expectation. If I expect that you have zero or one, you would use the singular. If I expect that you have zero, one or more, you would use the plural.

I have no father. I have a father.
I have no mother. I have a mother.
I have no parents. I have one parent. I have two parents.

The normal expectation is to have one father, one mother, two parents. So you use "no" with singular for father or mother, and with plural for parents, and "a father", "a mother" vs. "one parent".

There may be two people you call "father", for example your mother's ex-husband and her current husband, or two gay parents. As long as that isn't expected by the person asking you, you would give the same answer, but of course the answer could be "two fathers". If I asked "was your father at the football game" and you have two people you call "father", you might answer "One of my fathers was at the game."

A situation where I expect several: "How many fathers and mothers were at the school meeting?" might have an answer "There were no fathers but seven mothers present". "No fathers" has the plural because it was likely that there were several.

0

In English counting "zero" values requires pluralization. Sometimes "no" means "zero", sometimes it is used as negation.

Counting is almost always valid, and negation is almost always valid, the one you choose to use depends on your intent and the context. Negation always preserves the plurality of the original statement.

If there is a question or implied question, it is usually best to use negation, which will never change the plurality of the question. For example, for the following statement:

You need a friend to enter.

A possible answer is:

I have no friend with me.

This is only because the question was singular and you are intended to negate it. If you responded with "I have no friends with me", it would be awkward, as it would mean you both pluralized and negated the original statement, where you should have only negated it.

Often times due to the ambiguity the use of "no" for "zero" is avoided, and can come across as a mistake. It is sometimes also used to emphasize certain words.

It will come across as more clear if you work around "no" for negation, such as:

I do not have a friend with me.

This makes it clear you want to negate the "friend with me" clause, instead of trying to count how many friends you have with you.

EDIT

I hoped I wouldn't have to get into the different between "form" and "meaning", as it is really convoluted, but I can't see a way to answer @gotube's comment with out. So... here we go.

Two sentences can have technically identical meaning, but different form. Often this is used for subtext (meaning not explicitly written, to imply politeness, intention, etc).

The best explanation of the differences between these I can think of, is using JavaScript (again, sorry for the complexity, but English doesn't do a great job at distinguishing these two, and I feel some English Language Learnings may know JavaScript):

// Negation
!people.some(person => isIsland(person)) === true

vs

// Counting
person.filter(person => isIsland(person)).length === 0

And so, "I have no friend with me", is not counting zero items, it is negation. The technical meaning (ignoring subtext) is identical to counting zero items. Mathematically speaking it is identical, which makes it confusing, but... it is just a different way to phrase it, and therefore, has different rules.

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  • You say (1)"In English counting "zero" values requires pluralization", but then you say (2) that "I have no friend with me" (which has a zero value, but is singular) is a valid statement in English. (1) and (2) can't both be true. Could you edit your answer to clarify what you mean by "requires"?
    – gotube
    Mar 24 at 6:00
  • @gotube, thanks, I updated my answer. Essentially, counting is the important word. You can have zero items, and not be counting anything. This is because you "don't have an item", which means you have zero, but that sentence is not counting how many items you have, it is negating. If you counted, you would have zero, so they are equivalent, but... the syntax and therefore pluralization rules are different.
    – yeerk
    Apr 12 at 5:52

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