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Can anyone give a grammatical explanation why the words hundred, thousand, million, and trillion are singular after plural numbers?

For example, why can't we say three hundreds or 4 thousands or five millions, etc?

One of my students asked me and all I could say is that it is an exception to the rule of bringing a plural word after a plural number!

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Possible duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/57812/… –  Bravo Apr 18 '12 at 7:06
    
Besides A few more hundred vs hundreds mentioned before, see Millions versus million –  jwpat7 Apr 18 '12 at 8:04
    
It is also true for "dozen", "gross", "score" and sometimes (especially in older writings) for "pair" as well. –  Peter Shor Apr 18 '12 at 10:29
    
But Google Ngrams seems to show that in Indian English, it's not as true for "lakh" and "crore". So the usage is "two lakh fifty thousand", but "I need three lakhs of ...". –  Peter Shor Apr 18 '12 at 11:10
    
What's the next word? –  SrJoven Nov 6 at 0:53

5 Answers 5

I've always thought that when the words hundred, thousand, million and trillion are used after a specific number, they are part of that number. I know that number fifteen, for example, signifies the plural form of the noun that follows, but there's no need to pluralise the word fifteen. Similarly, it looks logical to me not to pluralise the words that form the number. So two hundred and the like is ruled by this logic. Note that the same thing happens with the (less frequent) words dozen and score.

When the number is not specific and you want to talk about a few hundreds of people, for example, you then pluralise hundred because you aren't naming a specific number. This is the case when the non-specific number is followed by the preposition of. If you say a few hundred people, where no preposition intervenes, then hundred behaves in the same way as when the number is specified. A possible explanation for this could be that it follows the rule that forms two hundred because the construct is the same, while the use of the preposition of changes things.

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This phenomenon - the uninflected plural of numerals - is a remnant of Old English. In Old English, words like hund "hundred" and þusend "thousand" were indeclinable. That is, they did not change form based on case or number.

Today this remains but only in some limited situations - specifically, when the number word is preceded by a determiner (a, one, another number). This is also the case in English's sister language Frisian (you knew English had a sister language, right?), where tûzen, etc., don't take a plural form.

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There is not necessarily a logical grammatical justification. In the case of million, usage patterns have shifted.

"Two millions" vs. "Two million"

According to Google Ngram, "two millions" has long been the standard expression. However, starting around 1850, its usage declined while "two million" rose in popularity. Around 1920, "two million" became the new norm, and today "two millions" is rarely used.

Google Ngram of "Two millions" vs. "Two million"

"Two thousands", "Two hundreds"

In contrast, neither "two thousands" nor "two hundreds" has ever been accepted usage.

Google Ngram of "Two thousand(s)" and "Two hundred(s)"


If I had to speculate on the reason for the difference, it is probably because million has Latin origins, whereas hundred and thousand have Germanic origins. Therefore, the Old English-based inflection rules have always applied to hundred and thousand, as @MarkBeadles says, but the French-based rules for million have only recently started giving way.

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@Mari-LouA What corresponding links? The Ngram plots are clickable, if that is what you mean. –  200_success Nov 6 at 3:35
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books.google.it/… The snippet has "fifty millions" and "two millions". –  Mari-Lou A Nov 6 at 3:44
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“Millions” versus “million” You could also post an answer there. This link directs you to the snippet I posted in my comment. –  Mari-Lou A Nov 6 at 3:55

They don't get an s because that's not what they're called.

300 is called three hundred. That is its name. You could say you are counting the number of hundreds, but you're not really, you're just naming something. We could have ended up calling it thirtyty, or something, but we haven't.

Also you can say 3 hundreds or 2 thousands, when you are counting them.

I have 3 hundreds, 14 fifties, and 12 ones.

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This doesn't really explain why we say "five dozen" or "three score". Those are not names for a number ... the name for that number is "sixty". But we don't pluralize "dozen". –  Peter Shor Apr 18 '12 at 10:38
    
@PeterShor then the reason for that is different. –  Matt Эллен Apr 18 '12 at 10:42
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It's exactly the same phenomenon. –  Peter Shor Apr 18 '12 at 10:43
    
@PeterShor I don't see how. –  Matt Эллен Apr 18 '12 at 10:44
    
You could say that the grammatical rule is that you don't pluralize "number words" when preceded by numbers or the words "few" and "several", where "number words" are "gross", "score", "dozen", "hundred", "thousand", "million", "billion", "trillion", etc. Before 1850 or so, "pair" was also a "number word". And "head" is a "number word" when applied to livestock (i.e., fifty head of cattle). –  Peter Shor Apr 18 '12 at 10:48

The only words you can put in plural are nouns. Cardinal and ordinal numbers aren't nouns. Except for example: the 90s were great

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How is that an "except"? –  RegDwigнt Dec 23 '12 at 13:37
    
you are right. It's a noun and not a cardinal number. I shoudn't have used the word except. –  wouter Dec 30 '12 at 22:52

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