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For example, to answer the question, "How tall are you?" valid answers include:

  • Five feet.
  • Five foot three.
  • Five feet, three inches.

Why the discrepancy between feet and foot, seemingly only in the second case.


This question is inspired by this question: "Forty foot" or "forty feet"?

edit: I do not believe the answer to this is related to the other question. The explanation for the other question is because of how adjective modifiers work. My question is a very different case, unrelated to adjectives. My observation is that I am asking about a particular exception case which applies only when "foot" is followed by a number which is assumed to be inches. That's extremely specific, and I doubt that the etymology has any relation to why we leave adjective modifiers singular.

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It's not a duplicate. The answer on compound adjectives doesn't apply here. It's not exactly inspiring though. –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 3 '11 at 23:19
    
I'm intrigued you think the choice of foot or feet is affected by whether or not there are any odd inches following. I've never come across that distinction before, and in fact I'd be quite happy to answer "Six foot - well, six foot two, to be precise". –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '11 at 1:40
    
Maybe I'm wrong. Am I? I also have the impression that it's only for feet -- no other unit of measurement. "One meter seventy-five" doesn't sound right to me. –  tenfour Jun 4 '11 at 1:57
    
My father's a builder, and I've worked with him on lots of 'diy' jobs where we've had to call measurements out. I'm sure he'd always say "One meter seventy-five", as would I. Or more likely just "One seven-fifty" to avoid confusion about whether the 'minor' component was centimeters or milimeters. We're UK; maybe US usage differs. –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '11 at 2:08

3 Answers 3

up vote -5 down vote accepted

I think it's "idiomatic by association". ngram

(this NGram should be enough to at least prove a trend)

There's long-standing 'idiomatic' use of the singular noun-form in 'adjectival' compounds such as toothbrush, ten-foot bargepole, four-wheel drive, etc. The answer to "how tall are you?" isn't really a noun, and it isn't a verb. It's closest 'basic' linguistic element is in fact an adjective (describing your height). People sense this, so over the decades they've simply shown an increasing tendency to apply the same 'singularisation' rule they've always been used to in related contexts.

OP correctly identifies a tendency to use the older pluralised form with more 'precise' measurements. One reason may be that people speak more carefully knowing they've got the longer utterance to come. Without conciously thinking, they just override the 'idiomatic' tendency in favour of the 'older, but perhaps more accurate' plural. The ones who do that are decreasing all the time, but obviously most of us would avoid pluralising the explicitly-named inches if we hadn't already pluralised feet.

It's the same with UK x pounds y pence (and US X dollars y cents, maybe?), where you often hear the first unit singularised and the second omitted. I suspect there's an increasing tendency to omit both units just to avoid the awkwardness of possible mixed plurality.

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Adjectival modifiers are irrelevant to this question. –  tenfour Jun 4 '11 at 1:04
    
So I think to summarize this, my observations are flawed and basically we do this because we consider it an adjectival function. I wonder then if we should hyphenate "five-foot-four" then? –  tenfour Jun 4 '11 at 9:01
    
@tenfour: Not I don't think your observations are flawed. I'm sorry I was so ungracious last night, but on calmer reflection the usage you've pointed out does occur, and I believe is explicable. So far as I'm aware now, the only point we might disagree on is that I think most standard responses to "How tall are you?" are 'adjective-like' in most speakers minds. But you may be prepared to agree with that now. –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '11 at 13:50
    
I have the feeling that I just don't know enough about the usage to ask a meaningful question. I marked yours as answer because it calls out all the interesting stuff and reasonable possibilities. I think it makes sense that we can basically think of "6 foot 2" as an adjective (or maybe there's enough ambiguity to cause this varied handling), but there are enough exceptions that I'm still curious to know more about how all this works. For example, "How old are you?" "30-year" sounds ridiculous to me. Cheers. –  tenfour Jun 5 '11 at 10:16
    
@tenfour: We don't normally quantify people's ages in terms of years and months. It's invariably just years anyway - so the units don't need to be named, and the singular/plural issue doesn't arise. I'm still interested in this one, though it seems to have gone stale for most people on EL&U. Can you come up with any other 'exceptions', or define more clearly what you mean by that word in this context? –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 '11 at 14:26

There are many such cases of using singular forms for plural meaning, not only in English, but also in German, and possibly other Germanic languages, or even non-Germanic languages. For example, you order "drei Bier" instead of "drei Biere", and in a football match, there are "elf Mann" on the pitch, rather than "elf Männer". (The plural forms are not strictly incorrect, just less common.)

In general, the "why" question doesn't have a satisfactory answer for this kind of linguistic fact; don't search for logic and reason where there's only history and convention.

Ah, and of course you also say "drei Fuß" in German (on the rare occasion you'd be referring to pre-metric measures), not "drei Füße", which, in this case, would have to be qualified as wrong, just as in English, I guess.

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I'm not terribly keen on all German examples to answer a question about English. –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 3 '11 at 23:14
    
I'm not terribly keen on the fact that the only non-Germanic part of this answer freely admits the "why" question doesn't have a satisfactory answer. But I get three downvotes for saying the same thing without the pointless window-dressing. –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '11 at 23:41
    
@z7sg - I hope there are other things you're terribly keen on! :-) Did you know English is a Germanic language? Still shows, after all these years ... :-) So, the brother of "keen" in German is "kühn", which means audacious - isn't that fascinating? –  Lumi Jun 3 '11 at 23:47
    
@FumbleFingers I think it's an honest effort by a new user, although ultimately not a suitable answer so I didn't downvote. Your answer otoh is just a snarky comment. –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 3 '11 at 23:51
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The question was "why". I don't know the answer, but the answer could easily be along the lines of "because English is a Germanic language, and features X and Y entered both English and German from their common ancestor". So demonstrating similar behaviour in German is a perfectly valid thing to be doing, as part of the answer to a "why" question about English. –  user16269 Jan 19 '12 at 11:04

If there are no nouns following the unit, then it is:

Six feet

but if there are any noun following:

six foot four inches

or

A six-foot hole/A six-foot drop,

but

but, : six feet tall.

The reason the last example is "feet" is because although it is followed by another word, that word is an "adjective".

A six-foot man/ a man who is six feet tall.

We can also see this in other measurements:

Six-inch ruler/six inches long.

25-mile journey/ 25 miles long.

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Typesetting note: hyphens make the distinction clearer. Six-inch is adjectival, six inches is nominal. –  Jon Purdy Jun 4 '11 at 7:42
    
I think people don't like the 'mixed plurality' of six foot four inches. I agree with @Jon Purdy on the adjectival/nominal distinction, where nominals invariably use singular units. But the answer to "How tall are you?" isn't really a 'nominal' in that sense, which is why it gets speakers a bit confused sometimes. –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '11 at 14:17

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