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Do we say "-1 thing" or "-1 things"?

Edit: I am interested in both of these cases: "two things minus one thing(s)" and the quantity "minus/negative one thing(s)."

Bounty: While there are some good answers, I'm starting a bounty in an attempt to get an authoritative answer. I'm looking for either a solid, undeniable argument either way or a well-cited answer.

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What about 0? I'm always surprised when I see something like "0 results". If there are no results, it cannot be plural, can it? –  Philippe Jan 24 '11 at 11:03
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0 is plural because it is expressing an absence of (an implicitly plural) thing. "0 trains" is in fact shorthand for "There are no trains today" (implying there are usually many). Compare this with "There is no train today" (implying there is usually exactly one) –  smirkingman Jan 24 '11 at 12:29
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Plural doesn't mean "more than one". It means "any number other than one". 1.0001 is plural. 0.99999 is plural. 0 is plural. -1 is plural. Only 1 is singular. The nature of singularity is being single, isn't it? Everything else is plural. –  nohat Jan 24 '11 at 18:27
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@Stephen I'm well accustomed to how SE sites work (I'm a 13k SO user, mostly from answering). I'm waiting in the hope that a definitive answer will come through. –  marcog Jan 24 '11 at 21:11
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slightly related: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/15590/… –  Cawas Jan 27 '11 at 18:38

8 Answers 8

up vote 4 down vote accepted
+100

A few elements of response:

  1. authority: as mentioned by Cawas, there is not ultimate authority on the English language, and while there are a number of references, I have not been able to identify a solid consensus on the subject.

  2. Usage: It is fairly difficult to check this due to the possible misunderstanding between "(minus one) thing" and "minus (one thing)", assuming that these are two separate cases, an assumption I would tend to disagree with. However, searching for "minus one dollar" -infinity on Google returns 254,000 results while "minus one dollars" -infinity returns only 7 results. The difference is significant enough to consider that regardless of any possible confusion as suggested above, minus one should be followed by the singular, at least in this case. ("-infinity" is added to the search phrase to exclude the expression "infinity minus one dollar"). "minus three dollars" is significantly more common than "minus three dollar", suggesting that "minus" itself does not affect the rules of the plural/singular following numbers.

  3. Logic: "minus one" is not an actual quantity in the physical universe. "Minus one" is only an abstraction which refers to the action of subtracting one of anything. Rather that saying "whenever you have apples, remove one apple" we say "minus one apple". It follows that "(minus one) thing" and "minus (one thing)" are actually equivalent.

Barring incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, I would say that it is safe to use the singular following "minus one".

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Er, "one" isn't an actual quantity in the physical universe, either. Integers, both positive and negative, are all abstractions. I completely fail to comprehend the minds of people who accept the integer 1 as a valid reification, but not the integer -1. The idea that "minus one apple" means "whenever you have apples remove one apple" is just as absurd as the idea that "one apple" means "whenever you have apples add one apple". I can accept that there's no clear answer to this question, but this part is just meaningless. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 7 '11 at 11:29
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@ShreevatsaR: Let me help you understand then: "One" is an actual quantity. You CAN go to the store and buy one apple. You can't go to the store and buy "minus one apple". And if you can't see there IS a difference, go down to your local store. Positive numbers represent actual quantities. Negative numbers represent an operation (substraction), combined with positive numbers to quantify it. –  Sylverdrag Feb 11 '11 at 16:50
    
You cannot go to the store and buy "one". "One" is not an actual physical quantity; it is also an abstraction. And "negative numbers represent subtraction" is no more true than "positive numbers represent addition". (BTW, it isn't substraction.) You also cannot buy 1.414 apples or 1000000000000000000 apples… yet I suspect you're willing to grant the existence of those numbers. :-) It's true that the positive integers form a proper subset of the integers, but the criterion for "actual existence" is not well defined. –  ShreevatsaR Feb 11 '11 at 17:37
    
@ShreevatsaR: You are dodging my point, which demonstrates that you actually got it and are simply arguing for the sake of being right. Of course you can't buy "one". Duh! It's a quantity, and of course you have to define a quantity of what. But you can buy "One apple". You can't buy "minus one", and you can't buy "minus one apple" either. And you can buy 1.414 lb of steak or a quazillion grains of sand. Anyway, I won't argue this further. If you don't want to get it, don't. –  Sylverdrag Feb 12 '11 at 4:08
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But you don’t have to resort to high-school physics. Even if you’re just counting, changes in number can be positive or negative. Do you propose that counting numbers are “actual quantities” in a way that changes are not? –  Jason Orendorff Aug 30 '11 at 15:54

As I said in answer to another question (about "0.25 mile" v/s "0.25 miles"), my preference is to use the singular only for the natural number 1: when you are counting something and the count is 1.

That is, if "minus" is conceivably an operator, as in "the band reunited, minus one member", you would use the singular. (The "one" there is a count of how many members were missing, so it takes the singular.)
But if "-1" is just a numerical value, then (to me) the plural is preferable, as in "It was a cold day in winter, and the temperature was -1 degrees Celsius". This is similar to the usage "0.1 grams", IMHO. (Though what I'd actually write is "-1 °C", side-stepping the issue.)

(Searching Google for "minus one degrees" gives this article and this one, but make of them what you will.)

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Good point. Personally I say 'minus one degree'. However, I would also say 0.1 grams (though I would say '1 gram'). –  user3444 Jan 24 '11 at 10:57
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I'd still like to hear a more authoritative answer. All answers so far are very opinionated. (I can't view the first article as we share IP addresses here so it says I've hit the viewing limit.) –  marcog Jan 24 '11 at 11:16
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@marcog: I agree; I'd like a more authoritative answer too. (And I suspect that the authoritative answer will be something like: different speakers have different grammars and treat the case differently; both are acceptable. :p) –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 11:20
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I like the "operator" bit. Let's try some parenthetical grouping: "minus" as an operator means "minus (one member)", wheres the other case is "(minus one) degree(s)" (Yes, I'm still on the fence on this one ;-)) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 24 '11 at 14:56
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When you say "minus one member", minus is a preposition and so you are just dealing with one rather than minus-one as a single noun unit. So, that one isn't really a special case. I agree with your answer here and in the related question — we naturally use singular agreement with "1" only, and nothing else. Between one and zero, zero, or negative amounts don't trigger this singular agreement... except when people overthink it :) –  Kosmonaut Jan 24 '11 at 16:53

Neil Whitfield gives an answer on his ESL blog here. It depends on whether the quantity is countable or not.

[C]ountable nouns form plurals; mass/uncountable nouns don’t. This gets a little more complicated because some nouns may be either countable or mass/uncountable, depending on how they are being used. “Wheat” for example may be both: ten kilos of wheat is uncountable; several types of wheat is also uncountable; there are several wheats used in this mix is countable.

OK, with countable nouns: I would say 0.1 apples for grammatical reasons, though I agree it is not logical! I guess you could say 0.1 of an apple just as you say one-tenth of an apple If the number one is used, whether it is +/-1, the following noun will be singular. So it would be -1 apple. We’re talking grammar, not logic; and yes we say zero apples, probably because zero is thought of as a number that is not one, even though zero is neither singular nor plural logically.

So it looks like grammatically (perhaps not mathematically) the following

  • 0.3 = point-three apples (uncountable)
  • 1/3 = one third of an apple (countable one in fraction)
  • 2/3 = two thirds of an apple (countable more than one third)
  • 0 = zero apples, no apples (uncountable)
  • 1 = one apple (countable)
  • 3 = three apples (countable)

However, (Caveat, I'm not a grammar professional)

  • -1 = negative one apples (uncountable, you can't have negative of something real, like money. This is a mathematical concept only, hence plural would be ok.) This feels like negative-one apples
  • -1 = minus one apple (countable. "After they broke into his house, he was left with minus one apple." The number of apples stolen is countable.) This feels like minus one-apple

I hope that clarifies it a bit more. They're both appropriate in different circumstances. Hooray for English! #sarcasm


[EDIT]

I'll add just a bit more. If the word one can be replaced by an article (a/an/the) then you should use the singular.

The temperature is minus one degree Celsius.
The temperature is minus a degree Celsius.

However, the following is kindof awkward.

Ten subtracted from nine is negative one degrees Celsius.
Ten subtracted from nine is negative a degree Celsius.

So you should probably use the plural.

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@marcog, yes. Although I would add that in every mathematical and engineering course I've ever taken, negative-one is always plural. It could just be pervasive bad grammar, but I hope not. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 24 '11 at 14:51
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@marcog, this is also an amazing ESL reference online. which gives tons of resources on counting/noncounting nouns. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 24 '11 at 15:04
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"Negative-one" sounds like a very American phrase to me. I'd just say "minus one". –  TRiG Jan 25 '11 at 1:13
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@Stephen: as @TRiG says, ‘negative one’ is an American usage, nonstandard in the UK and most(?) Commonwealth countries. I’ve been told that (if I remember right) this terminology became popular from the ‘new math’ education movement in the 60’s/70’s, who felt it would help students grasp the distinction between ‘five minus one’ (in which ‘minus’ is a binary operator’, acting on ‘five’ and ‘one’ together), and ‘minus one’ (where ‘minus’ is a *unary operator, a modifier, acting on ‘one’). –  PLL Jan 26 '11 at 17:54
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@PLL: You're right (this has been discussed on math.SE and on Math Overflow too), but it was just one of the many mistakes of the 'new math' movement. (And many mathematicians on the site strongly despised the use of "negative" instead of "minus" in schools.) While it is true that "-5" is negative, "-x" could be either negative or positive depending on the sign of x, so using "negative" for the unary operator and calling it "negative x" actually interferes with the students' understanding of algebra. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 27 '11 at 7:16

The only number that is singular is one. All other numbers are plural, including negative one. 1.0001 is plural. 0.99999 is plural. 0 is plural. -1 is plural. Only 1 is singular. The nature of singularity is being single, unitary, unique, isn't it? Everything else is plural.

However, in many cases the string of words "minus one" does not denote a negative number. Rather it denotes a relation with the preposition minus and a singular item. In the questioner's examples, "two things minus one thing" is grammatical because here the quantity is not "minus one thing" it's the quantity "two things" (plural) joined by the preposition minus with "one thing" (singular).

In the case of the number "minus one" or "negative one", it is plural, because here we have the adjective minus rather than the preposition. "The temperature is minus one degrees". "The bank made an error and deposited negative one dollars into the account".

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You might be right, but I don't agree that your singularity argument very clearly applies to -1. I think this is reading too much into the word "singular". –  marcog Jan 24 '11 at 18:37
    
while I agree, one-tenth of an apple is a singular tenth of the apple. It depends a lot on context, because point-one apples is also appropriate since there isn't a singular there. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 24 '11 at 21:01
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yes "one tenth of an apple" is one (singular) "tenth of an apple". The tenth of an apple is singular as you would expect because there is exactly one of them. "0.1 apples" is plural because there is "zero point one"—which is not singular—of them. –  nohat Jan 24 '11 at 22:18
    
Compare "one tenth of an apple" with "two tenths of an apple" and you'll quickly see the grammar of that construction. There is no number that would require "of apples". –  Matt Nov 21 '11 at 20:45
    
What about 1.00 meter(s), meaning I measured the length and I think it is between 0.995 and 1.005 meters? –  gnasher729 May 10 at 22:42

Singular.

In the case of subtracting things, the minus is not part of the count itself, you are subtracting one positive count from another positive count:

Four cars minus one car is three cars.

When not counting things, so that you can actually have a negative value, it's still singular:

The temperature was minus one degree.

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Why the downvote? If you don't explain what you think is wrong, it can't improve the answer. –  Guffa Jan 24 '11 at 15:17
    
If minus one is a number in the first example, then you could also say Four cars three cars is seven cars. But you can't, so it isn't. The second example simply sounds wrong to my ear, because the singular degree implies that one binds to degree more strongly than it does to minus. But the unary minus certainly shouldn't have lower precedence than the binary minus, and it sounds fine to say I have three minus two cars, while I don't think anyone would say I have three cars minus two cars. (I wasn't the downvote.) –  Matt Nov 21 '11 at 19:46
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@Matt: I don't get your point. I said that "the minus is not part of the count itself", so minus one is not a number in the first example. Why do you think that anyone would not say I have three cars minus two cars? –  Guffa Nov 21 '11 at 23:34
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For the meaning you say, I agree with you. However, you are using this to back up your answer to the original question. The original question was about "-1 things" (with that spacing) and I don't think anyone would write "4 cars -1 cars is 3 cars" to indicate subtraction, so I don't think this meaning applies to the original question. Also the title of this question is "Is -1 singular or plural?" and again this is about a number, -1, not about subtraction. So I suppose I simply misunderstood your first example, because I thought it was intended to answer the question. –  Matt Nov 23 '11 at 20:33

I've done some research and I can't see why you haven't accepted one of the two top answers so far.

It seems there is no authority in english language, which is a good thing. Even if there was something, do you prefer oxford or wikipedia? With that, I like to think of english as an adaptive language in which we are obligated to think and judge its rules for ourselves through observation and logic.

And in this case, as people already said:

-1 can be singular like in "minus 1 thing" or plural as in "negative 1 things".

It's (minus) one of those things that only makes sense when you have some background knowledge and speak it out loud.

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Always singular. Minus one point. Minus one day. Minus one dollar. No exceptions.

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And on what do you base your answer? –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 10:37
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@ElendilTheTail: But what you have here is the number -1, not the number 1. And if the claim that plural means more than one is true (which I doubt: I think the plural means "not one"), then -1 is certainly less than 1, so it can't be plural by that definition. :p –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 10:55
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@smirkingman That's probably because the idea of paying a negative amount makes no sense. Think of it as "Net profit is -1 dollar(s)". –  marcog Jan 24 '11 at 11:33
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@smirkingman, it's likely because you're not explaining the answer. People come here to learn why, not just what a rule is. All the one-line answers have been downvoted for likely that reason. Give an explanation, quote a source, etc. I tend to downvote for inconsiderate responses, not just short ones. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 24 '11 at 14:49
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@smirkingman: BTW, to explain my first comment: it wasn't meant to dispute your answer, but I only asked because (1) the bare answer was not very illuminating: it's more useful if answers have some reasoning or explanation or authority; even "the fact that I was born and raised a Brit; that I've been speaking English for 56 years…" etc. would be (slightly) more helpful than an answer that's just "someone on the internet said so", and (2) very few questions on this site seem to have answers that can validly end with "No exceptions", so a strong claim seems to require strong support. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 20:56

Thing. One is singular by definition:

'I have a full train set, minus one carriage'.

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The "-" is for "minus". More real-world examples: "-1 point(s)", "-1 day(s)", "-1 dollar(s)", "-1 percent(s)". –  marcog Jan 24 '11 at 10:19
    
I thought so. My answer stands in any case. 1 is singular whether it's minus or not. –  user3444 Jan 24 '11 at 10:31
    
Your example subtracts one carriage from a full train set, and so indeed it uses the number one as you say. But the question (as I read it) is about the number minus one. As in, "I have a full train set, plus minus one carriages." And for this case, where minus one is definitely being used as a single number, only the plural is even remotely correct (to my ear). –  Matt Nov 21 '11 at 20:23

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