Friday, September 25, 2009

When singular and plural aren't

My aunt pointed out to me a recent Scientific American article by Marc Hauser (the article link, unfortunately, only takes you to a teaser). Therein he points out that even though we think of the plural form of nouns being used for more than one, this isn't always the case.

We English speakers are somewhat inconsistent in what we decide to mark as plural. Allow me to illustrate: You is plural even when it refers to only one person. One megabit is singular even though it's 1,000,000 bits (or sometimes 1,048,576 bits). One apple is singular, but 1.0 apples is plural. Half an apple is singular, but 0.5 apples is plural. More than one apple is singular. And perhaps most confounding of all, zero apples is plural.

Hauser says this last is "actually ungrammatical" (I think that was the exact wording, though I don't have it in front of me.) Nonsense! It's perfectly grammatical. Just because the grammarians who chose the term plural for this part of our number system suffered from a lack of analysis/imagination, doesn't make the system wrong. Labels are not definitions, and they certainly are not invocations.


Faldone said...

I have been playing around with creating a language and have decided there should be 7 numbers:

Singular (1 and only 1)

Dual (2 and only 2)

Plural1 (3 or more)

Plural2 (2 or more)

Plural3 (1 or more)

Plural4 (0 or more)

Zero (none and only none)

Brett said...

Is this sort of an anti Esperanto?

Unknown said...

The word "apple" has the value of one. No other integer can be associated with it.
Any number other than one is plural, including 0.5, or 1.0 or even
Zero, all of which are "possibility" numbers. If you don't like calling zero a number, you can call it a placeholder.
Was in the mood for grammar tonight.
It seems to go with pinot grigio.

Unknown said...

Just to follow up - apple belongs to the categories of whole, real, and natural numbers...whereas 0.25 apples is rational, although real.
Rational numbers, real and imaginary, are plural.

Faldone said...

@ Brett:

I suppose, in the sense that it is certainly not intended to be any kind of universal language, it's anti Esperanto. It's more of an intellectual exercise. I also plan to have a very full case system.

Brett said...

And how do you plan to deal with collocation? That's something I've always wondered about with these made-up languages.

Anonymous said...


1.0 *is* one.