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I commented against an earlier question “No A or B” vs. “Neither A nor B” that in contexts such as The system has had no error since 2013 native speakers would invariably use the plural errors.

As I see it, the two extremes for singular/plural usage here can be typified by, for example,...

1a: I've had no food since Monday.
1b: I've had no friends since leaving school.

...where my first thought was we use singular food because it's a mass noun. I may be wrong, but I'm guessing that's what underpins my increasing aversion to the singular noun forms in...

2a: I've had no trouble since switching to Linux (at this end of the list, plural seems unlikely to me)
2b: I've had no difficulty since switching
2c: I've had no problem since switching
2d: I've had no error since switching (at this end, only plural works for error, setback, issue, etc.)

(The example is totally made up - I'm actually having all sorts of problems with Ubuntu Linux! :)


But that "mass noun" principle doesn't seem to help when I consider...

3: I've had no boss since becoming self-employed (where I strongly prefer the singular)

What's going on here? Am I wrong about the "mass noun" distinction in the first place? Is there something else involved that makes #3 a special case?

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I don’t think you’re wrong about the mass noun distinction, but I think you’re wrong in assuming that it is the main factor in determining whether a singular or plural should be used.

Obviously, if the noun in question is a mass noun, there is no way you’re going to use an awkward or even nonexistent plural for this construction; so let’s ignore cases like “I’ve had no food since Monday” completely aside (and be happy for the person speaking that today happens to be a Monday).

In all the other cases, I find both singulars and plurals perfectly natural, but they imply different things. The fact that they are negated does not cancel out the singular/plural distinction entirely. Semantics may make some cases more likely to be singular than plural or vice versa, but that’s very individual to the context and idiomaticity.

In general, I would say that the distinction is:

  1. The singular is used when the sense is that a specific [noun] is negated, or that the [noun] that is negated is expected or implied to be singular itself. “I have had no [singular]” is equivalent to “I have not had a/the [singular]”.

  2. The plural is used when the sense is that the negated [noun] is of unknown number—that is, if it hadn’t been negated, it might have been singular, or it might have been plural. “I have had no [plural]” is equivalent to “I have not had any [singular or plural, as appropriate]”.

If the context dictates, your examples could all swing either way:

1bɑ: I’ve had no friend since leaving school (= I haven’t had a friend since leaving school, but if I had, I would here be thinking of just the one)
1bβ: I’ve had no friends since leaving school (= I haven’t had any friends at all, but if I had, there would probably have been more than just a single one)

2ɑ: I’ve had no trouble/difficulty/problem/error since switching (= I haven’t had the trouble/difficulty/problem/error [that we’re talking about] since switching, but since we’re talking about a specific thing, there would just be the one if I had)
2β: I’ve had no troubles/difficulties/problems/errors since switching (= I haven’t had any [unspecified] troubles/difficulties/problems/errors at all, but if I did, there might have been just one, or there might have been several different ones)

3ɑ: I’ve had no boss since March (= If I had, I would just have had the one, but he’s been out of the loop since March, so I’ve been without him)
3β: I’ve had no bosses since March (= Bosses come and go, but I haven’t had any of them at all since March)

And an even clearer case:

4ɑ: He was widowed at 28 and has had no girlfriend since (= We’re thinking of a proper monogamous, long-lasting relationship where she would be The Girlfriend)
4β: He was widowed at 28 and has had no girlfriends since (= He hasn’t gone out and had whatever number of relationships or girlfriends he might otherwise have had)

I do agree, though, that “The system has had no error since 2013” is quite an unlikely sentence. It takes rather a particular context to create a situation where there is some specific error being discussed and then have someone phrase a sentence about that error in that manner. Similarly, reforming the negation, it’s quite unlikely that you’d say “The system has not had the error since 2013”. It would be much more likely that the sentence would then be phrased as “The error has not occurred since 2013” or something like that. And if we are not talking about a specific error, the plural would be entirely expected.

In a slightly different context, it can work:

— “Did you ever get that weird JavaScript error in your script fixed?”
— “Yeah, John managed to figure out what was causing it and it looks like I’ve managed to get it fixed. I’ve had no error since then, at least.”

– but even here, different sentence structures are more likely.

  • This does it for me! I particularly like your example #4 as a good way of showing how the choice of singular/plural is affected by whether the speaker means (and hence, what the listener understands) by "having had no X/Xs". Essentially, it turns on whether the "opposite, affirming" case in the given context is most likely to be thought of as specifically involving one X, or one or more (with the implication, quite possibly several). – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '14 at 17:18
  • Exactly what I was trying to get across! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 '14 at 17:27
  • As with pictures, the right "illustrative" example can be worth a thousand words (yours certainly was to me in this case). I'm not quite sure how it squares with "I've had a car / a girlfriend / a wart ever since I was 18" as compared to the plural forms thereof, but maybe that's a separate issue (or maybe not, I really don't know). – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '14 at 17:46
  • I don't really think it relates. When the phrase is actually positive, there is no difference to bring out, since the focus isn't on what number a hypothetical (but nonexistent) thing is, but on the number of an actual, quantifiable thing. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 '14 at 17:51
  • @ Janus: I highlighted a wart specifically because it seems to me that one implies I've had the same wart all that time. But whereas plural cars, girlfriends, warts all strongly imply a succession of different ones, that same implication is still there with car, girlfriend, dog, etc., but apparently not with wart. Even diamond rings / a diamond ring seems not to fall into the same class as warts / a wart in this context (perhaps the slogan should be A wart is forever! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '14 at 18:05

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