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Correct plural form of a zero quantified noun

I could have:

  • Zero books
  • One book
  • Two books

Why is zero in plural form?


Per Merriam-Webster:
Plural (adj): of, relating to, or constituting a class of grammatical forms usually used to denote more than one or in some languages more than two

Singular (adj): of, relating to, or being a word form denoting one person, thing, or instance

So by this logic, our choices are one or more than one. Maybe it's a bug :-)

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Mitch, JSBձոգչ, F'x, kiamlaluno Aug 17 '11 at 17:58

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Related: Correct plural form of a zero quantified noun. –  Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:29
Not really. You're asking why, and in that question there is no explanation about the "why". :) –  Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:34
I don't think this is a duplicate. The first question was "Is it plural." This one is "Why is it plural." This question builds on the previous question. –  Andrew Neely Aug 17 '11 at 18:13
I think I shot myself in the foot when I started moving the question from "why is it plural" to "is singular more than one or just 'not one'". I guess it was unwelcomed clarification. –  Gary Aug 17 '11 at 18:28
"No" is usually plural as well: "I have no books." Sometimes it's not: "No moon was in the sky" (unless you live on Mars or Jupiter). I would guess the reason that "zero" is plural is that it inherited the most common plurality of "no". In fact, zero is not always plural. You say "zero tolerance" and not "zero tolerances". –  Peter Shor Mar 10 '14 at 17:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Substitute the word "any" in the place of zero and it makes sense. Instead of saying "I have zero books." you are saying "I do not have any books."

In this construction, the plural is not referring to the zero-quantity of books you have, but instead refers to a (vague and undefined) collection of books, none of which you have.

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That's the direction my thoughts were headed. I can't have 0 books, instead I have a lack thereof; the same way I can't make something colder, I can only take away heat. So I guess the confusion stems from a lack of a method to depict not actually having what we're counting. –  Gary Aug 17 '11 at 16:56
@Fantabulum, the concept of zero as a number is much more recent than other numbers (some accounts, 9th century AD.) That may where the confusion arises. –  Andrew Neely Aug 17 '11 at 17:02
Great information, thanks! I was not aware of that. –  Gary Aug 17 '11 at 17:22
Also, consider that zero is not a real number -- it is a concept. The concept of "not having any" applies to the entirety of the object. Therefore, it is indeed logical to apply the concept of zero to all instances of "book", hence, "zero books". This also applies to negative values -- you can't literally have -2 books. –  Mike Christian Aug 17 '11 at 18:00
I agree that I can't actually have zero books. We're not referring to the collection as a whole, as it would always be singular. I still can't wrap my head around nonexistent entity == plural unless I go with the fact that we decided what plural was before we decided that 0 can represent a number. –  Gary Aug 17 '11 at 18:42

In English, only 1 is singular; the other numbers are plural.

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I don't want to be a bother, but this doesn't actually answer the question. The OP asked why when the quantity is zero, the noun becomes plural. –  Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:33
@Alenanno: I think this answer is saying "Because that's how it is!" and it might be that there's nothing more to it. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 17 '11 at 15:40
Does that mean that negative 1 is plural? I always thought it was singular. "There are -1 dollars in my account" seems odd. –  Thaddee Tyl Aug 17 '11 at 15:44
@Thaddee Tyl: It does sound odd. In English, this particular sentence would be more correct as "My account is overdrawn by 1 dollar". Usually a negative number is said as an absence/loss of the positive number. Instead of "There are -3 boxes on the inventory" it would be said as "There are 3 boxes missing/not present/absent on the inventory". –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 17 '11 at 15:47
I would also argue that 379 degrees are not the same of −1 degrees; 379 degrees are 360 degrees plus 19 degrees. That means "make a complete turn, then add 19 degrees." –  kiamlaluno Aug 17 '11 at 17:15

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