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I saw this sentence in the math textbook.

For example, if we choose two 2s, zero 3s, and one 5, we get the divisor
math formula: 2^2 x 3^0 x 5^1 = 20.

Here they said zero 3s and one 5. Two is plural and one is singular, which is obvious, but zero is considered as plural so they said 'zero 3s'. Why is zero plural?

0 = plural, 1 = singular, 2 = plural, 3 = plural, and so on...

--> This relation does not look natural for me.

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  • 7
    See also english.stackexchange.com/questions/38293/…
    – SegNerd
    Commented May 22 at 3:15
  • 3
    Well, it rolls off the tongue naturally :-) Commented May 22 at 3:56
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers Is it that with reference to quantities zero is plural, whereas for qualitative measures zero is singular?
    – ryang
    Commented May 22 at 12:15
  • 3
    @ryang: I've no idea really, but I doubt it. There's no good reason why natural language should enforce any such distinction. Put another way, I know of no reasons why that might be so. To my mind, singular I have no interest in that and plural I have no qualms about that are both "qualitative measures", and it's an absolute certainty many native speakers have come out with both of those utterances using zero rather than no. Commented May 22 at 12:32
  • 5
    @Lambie 3 to the power of zero is 1, not 0. And "zero ideas" is plural, because "ideas" is plural. "Zero ideas are in his head," not "Zero ideas is in his head."
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented May 23 at 5:11

5 Answers 5

33

That is just how the language works. All numbers except exactly 1 are plural. Note that -1 can also be singular, but that depends on the context and dialect.

Examples

  • 0 books
  • 0.1 books
  • 1.5 books
  • 1 book
  • -1 book (could also be -1 books)
  • 2 books
  • 10 books
  • -5 books

Please have a look at this answer from English Stack Exchange

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  • 18
    1.0 books (?)
    – Martin Ba
    Commented May 22 at 13:30
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    @ryang: I don't think you're doing yourself any favours by trying to force a distinction based on whether the reference is to a "quantity" or a "quality, state, deficit,...". It's zero degrees, minus one degree and minus 0.9 degrees - the presence or absence of minus doesn't affect the basic rule, which has been repeated many times on this page. Commented May 22 at 15:18
  • 1
    @ryang in my dialect (?), I would say "-1 books" in isolation or a ledger. However, I would say "10 books minus 1 book", so it depends on context. MartinBa I would agree with that.
    – blarg
    Commented May 22 at 17:41
  • 8
    Fractional quantities less than one seem to depend on how they're phased. "I read 0.5 ("zero point five") books today, and 1.25 ("one point two five") books yesterday", but "I read half a book and one and a quarter books yesterday." (Both of those sentences feel a little unnatural anyhow.) I think that if the decimal is pronounced, even 1 becomes plural "1.00 books ("one point zero zero books")", but this also feels a bit contrived, too. Commented May 23 at 12:00
  • 3
    @Criggie "a" = 1 -> singular. It's "half (of) one book"
    – gotube
    Commented May 23 at 19:46
11

Idiomatically, a quantity is singular if and only if it is read aloud as a single entity (like a fractional unit).  Examples:

  • 1 litre is left

    ¾ litre (three-quarters of a litre) is left

    75% of the cake is left

    three-quarters of the cake is left

  • 1.0 litres (e.g., 1.003 litres to 1 decimal place) are left

    0 litres are left

    1¾ litres are left

    0.75 litres are left

    three-quarters of the pieces of cake are left

    3 quarters of the cake (3 quarter-cake slices) are left

(notice that 0.75 litres—unlike ¾ litre and 75% of the cake—is not read aloud as a fractional part of a whole). This observation for quantities (which are by definition nonnegative) holds regardless of whether the operation ‘minus’ is being applied; that is, -1 litre” and “-¾ litre” (whatever these mean) are correct.

When a plural quantity is being thought of as a single amount, it goes with a singular verb:

  • 24 hours is all I need
  • 0.75 litres / 2 litres is not a lot
  • one point zero zero dollars / 3 dollars is a nominal fee.

P.S. Note that “I have no legs” means that I have 0 legs (as opposed to 1 leg or 2 legs), while “I have no leg” means that I have not any leg (i.e., I do not have any leg).

P.P.S. Noting that “crew” can be singular or plural, the choice between “half the crew is” and “half the crew are” is a matter of intended meaning/emphasis.

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  • 1
    Note that when we say half a kilo, the "numeric quantifier" attaches to a (replaceable in that context by of one). We always include [of] a / one between a fractional value and the "thing being counted / quantified" in speech, even if we don't always write it. Commented May 22 at 11:27
  • 2
    I'd say that expressing it as a fraction isn't fundamentally the reason for the singular - it's because you're using "of". "Three-fourths" isn't actually grammatically quantifying "liter", as you can see by the intervening article. So "three-fourths of a liter" is the same type of expression as "most of a liter" or even "the weight of a liter".
    – Deusovi
    Commented May 22 at 12:46
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    I think there's also an aspect of whether fractions of a whole represent countable quantities or not - consider "Half the milk is needed for this recipe" versus "Half the workers are needed for this task." Commented May 22 at 13:31
  • 2
    I'm pretty sure I would say "three-quarters of a litre are needed" not "is needed". After all, we are referring to multiple quarters, not one. I would say one quarter of a litre is needed, but not three.
    – terdon
    Commented May 22 at 18:20
  • 3
    @terdon After taking a bite, three-quarters of my apple remains. I then slice it into three equal pieces; now three quarters of my original apple (so, three quarter-apples) are on the table.
    – ryang
    Commented May 23 at 1:38
5

Zero is not plural. The plural of zero is "zeroes" as in "The score for the team today is zeroes all across the board." (Baseball)

But when zero is used as an adjective to modify something countable the word it modifies is expressed in the plural. Examples from other answers are "zero books", "zero liters", and your own example, "zero 3s".

The reason for this is that zero is not one. In English usage, all numbers but one, when used as modifiers, throw the noun that is modified into the plural. We have no way to express a zero amount of a thing, only a singular way and a plural way, and since it is not singular, it is plural.

This is true also in other words that express negation. We say, "There are no ducks on the pond" and "None of the light bulbs are working." There is no noun form to represent a zero number, only singular and plural.

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    They're not talking about the word "zero", they're talking about the number zero (0), so the whole first paragraph is irrelevant.
    – wjandrea
    Commented May 22 at 16:24
  • 6
    The first paragraph is only to clarify the question. The question is about zero used as an adjective, not a noun.
    – Wastrel
    Commented May 23 at 14:08
1

It seems natural to me. Note that you say “I met no cats today.” No cats, one cat, two cats...

(Though in the Lord of the Rings, Eowyn says “I am no man.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7_c-R7i8F4)

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    To add: notice that you'd also say that this cat has no tail, meaning that this cat has not any tail rather than that this cat has 0 tails.
    – ryang
    Commented May 23 at 6:45
  • 1
    @ryang note that this seems to do with the expectation of the "usual amount" of the thing in question - if cats were expected to have anywhere from 1 to multiple tails, you would say "the cat has no tails". We say "this person has no right leg" as humans only have one of each, but for a cat we would say "this cat has no right legs". I am not 100 sure of the formal reasons, but I think it is because in the singular case we refer to the specific item that can be either present or not - either it has the state "a tail" or "no tail". Commented May 23 at 6:49
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    @htmlcoderexe Precisely. “I have no legs” means that I have 0 legs (as opposed to 1 leg or 2 legs), while “I have no leg” means that I have not any leg. Both sentences are grammatical.
    – ryang
    Commented May 23 at 7:32
  • 7
    "I am no man" means "I am not a man" (hence singular) not "I am zero men" (plural zero).
    – nigel222
    Commented May 23 at 13:19
  • 1
    Similarly, David Byrne sings "This ain't no disco" (singular) in "Life During Wartime". ;) Commented May 23 at 13:58
-4

The problem is that "s" designates a plural, while "apostrophe (”'")s" represents a possessive. In the example offered, "3's" represents a category of numerals characterized by the symbol 3 have a property that they possess of zero or one or two that is, no 3's, one "3" (3), or two "3's" (3,3).

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  • 1
    No, that is not the problem. For one thing, there are no occurrences of "3's" in the example offered. But more importantly, although "3's" could be used to describe properties of the number three or of a numeral 3, that is not how it is used in the example. The number of factors of 3 in the number 20 is not a property possessed by the number three or numeral 3. At best, your "no 3's, one "3" (3), or two "3's" (3,3)" improperly reverses the direction of possession: 20's (note possessive) prime factors include two 2s, zero 3s, and one 5. Commented May 23 at 21:49

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