I'm wondering if the word "bit" in its information theory / computer science sense actually has a plural.

If "bit" is used like a unit of measurement, then it should mostly be used in its singular forms. E.g. "20 bit of data is received" or "The capacity of this medium is 200 bit". However, this would make the use of "bit" as a noun for a small piece of information difficult.

So for example, while reading publications, I've often encountered sentences like "The bits received by the radio are processed by a decoder".

Now some people say, that the latter use of "bit" is wrong. I'm wondering if that is actually the case and all those occurrences are actually false English that has gone mainstream.

Not being a native speaker myself, I could not find a definitive conclusion. Sources like the Oxford English Dictionary (online) don't seem to mention a plural form for "bit". But it seems so common to talk about "bits" that I wanted to make sure.

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    I'm not sure I follow If "bit" is used like a unit of measurement, then it should mostly be used in its singular forms. What units of measure behave this way? Consider one meter vs. twenty meters, one gram vs. twenty grams, one liter vs. twenty liters. – Joel Anair Nov 11 '14 at 16:55
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    @Joel: My guess is that as a non-native speaker, OP is confusing usages like "This is a twenty litre bottle" with "This bottle holds twenty litres". As such, I think this question is General Reference. – FumbleFingers Nov 11 '14 at 17:06
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    A few units of measurement aren't pluralized: e.g. I think you might say "seventeen bar" when referring to pressure. Wikipedia says "The word "bar" is constant, regardless singular or plural." I don't know why that is, but it's the exception: most units of measurement (inches, degrees, metres, amps, etc.) are said with a plural, including "bits". – ChrisW Nov 11 '14 at 17:07
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    @Joel Anair. E.g. ASCII encodes 128 characters into 7-bit binary integers. I wouldn't touch that with a six-foot pole. – TRomano Nov 11 '14 at 17:24
  • No one seems to have mentioned that bit is an abbreviation of Binary digIT and so any plural form of binary digit also applies to bit, hence bits is perfectly legitimate. – Greenonline Feb 7 '15 at 3:17

As any other unit of measurement, bit also has its plural form - bits.

20 bits of data is received.

The capacity of this medium is 200 bits.

Using the singular form in both sentences would be wrong. If you use just the single-digit version - b, you do not need to put the s at the end: 200b.

Maybe in some contexts, where each of the separate bits is not so important as the whole chunk of data itself, the singular form can still be used, but I cannot think of any good example right now.

  • 2
    You can speak about a 32-bit word, but that's still a word that contains 32 bits. – keshlam Nov 11 '14 at 17:24
  • @keshlam, exactly, in the same way as a "12 foot pole" (not 12 feet pole and definitely 12 foots pole). – Dan Bron Nov 11 '14 at 17:34
  • @Dan Bron, do you think my usage of comma in the first sentence is correct? I just noticed it and I think it should not be there, but I am not sure. – Arsen Y.M. Nov 11 '14 at 17:40
  • Arsen, that comma works for me (occurs where there would be a natural pause if the sentence were spoken aloud). I'm not a fan of the em dash (hypen), but that's just a typographical pet peeve of mine. – Dan Bron Nov 11 '14 at 17:43
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    @Arsen Y.M.: In your sentence, "bits", not "data", is the noun with which the verb must agree. 20 bottles of ink were purchased. FWIW, data is technically the plural of datum, though it has come to treated (often, not always) as a singular noun. – TRomano Nov 11 '14 at 19:19

Bit when used as a unit of measurement is singular.

ASCII encodes 128 characters into 7-bit binary integers.

Otherwise it works like a normal noun, with singular and plural.

The client received 2,146, 567 bits of data from the server. About two million bits were received.

Here we flip the leading bit to zero.

  • It has nothing to do with "when used as a unit of measurement", but "when used as a pre-nominal modifier". Compare: a cracker box does not contain a single cracker, a two-person vehicle does not seat a single person... It is a rule in English that nouns that modify other nouns should be singular. – Amadan Nov 12 '14 at 1:22
  • I follow your statement of the pre-nominal rule, but not your example. What about my answer makes you believe I would think a two-person vehicle seated one person? I said "bit" would be singular in "7-bit integers". Integers there is plural. – TRomano Nov 12 '14 at 3:22
  • "bit" is not singular because it is a unit of measurement. It is a unit of measurement in "2,146, 567 bits of data" as well. Your examples are correct, but your explanation is not. My examples just illustrate the pre-nominal modifier rule, since without it, one would expect "a two-people vehicle" and "a crackers box". – Amadan Nov 12 '14 at 3:26
  • Does the pre-nominal rule apply also when the noun is only implied, by virtue of an antecedent? E.g. What size ladders do you carry? We have 6-foot, 12-foot, 16-foot, and 24-foot. ASCII encoding is 7-bit. – TRomano Nov 12 '14 at 11:54
  • None of those sound quite right to me, but someone might disagree. I'd say "...24-foot ones", "... is a 7-bit encoding". But I can't quote an authority. – Amadan Nov 12 '14 at 12:24

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