15

I am a little bit confused about using units in English, sometimes I hear that people use singular units for plural things, sometimes they use plural ones. Which one is correct?

  • 3 meter(s) long?
  • during a 2 week(s) period?
  • 0.5 dollar(s)
27

In Standard English, this crucially depends on whether the phrase is prenominal or not. Prenominally, the phrase will not show plural marking, while elsewhere it will have the normal plural marking, as appropriate.

Compare:

  • The bureau is 3 meters long.
  • This is a 3-meter-long bureau. (prenominal)


  • The period is 2 weeks.

  • This is a 2-week period. (prenominal)


  • The bill was 0.50 dollars.

  • This is a 0.50-dollar bill. (prenominal)

Note also that a hyphen is normally inserted to connect the words in the adjectival phrase when the phrase is prenominal.

| improve this answer | |
  • Are you sure you should use plural even refering to less-than-one numbers? Wouldn't it be 0.50 dollar? – andrerpena Apr 22 '11 at 3:20
  • 3
    @Ciwee: Yes, I am sure. You should probably read this answer from another question. – Kosmonaut Apr 22 '11 at 12:16
  • 2
    The only time this doesn't hold true is if the stated quantity is 1. Only 1, if it's 1.00001 then it's plural again. The dresser is 1 meter long. It will take 1 week to get there. The bill was 1 dollar and some change. The bill was 1.15 dollars. The bill was one dollar and 15 cents. The bill was 1 dollar and 1 cent. Even plural with 0. The bill was 0 dollars and 86 cents. I have 0 apples and 1 orange. – Phoenix Nov 24 '11 at 9:09
  • Dollars is a confusing example because we don't usually say "0.5 dollars" or "0.5 dollar" at all. If we substitute units of length then it's clear that we do pluralize: "The shelf is 0.3 metres wide", – Max Williams Apr 5 at 9:57
7

See the NIST check list for a good concise reference about units in general. For hyphenated compound adjectives, which are in the singular: 3-meter long, a 2-week period. For the plural of noninteger quantities, the rule is that everything other than 1 uses the plural: 0.5 dollars.

| improve this answer | |
2

Simply put, units are inherently plural. For instance, the SI unit for time is seconds, the SI unit for mass is kilograms, and so forth. Therefore, when recording measurements, I think that it is acceptable to write “0.2 kilograms” and “0.95 seconds.” An equivalent expression for this example is “two-tenths of a kilogram” and “ninty-five-hundredths of a second.”

| improve this answer | |
  • Your answer is good so far, but it doesn't address the second example. Why would one say "a two week period" instead of "a two weeks period"? – TaliesinMerlin Dec 26 '18 at 3:40
1

It is common in informal spoken English, at least American, to omit the plural.

I got me a new fish pole, ten foot long!

Correct usage would be to say, "ten feet long."

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    Correct usage would be to say "I bough a new fish pole..." – Brian Carlton May 30 '12 at 18:39
  • 1
    @BrianCarlton bough, as in the noun bough? – Kent Munthe Caspersen Dec 28 '15 at 17:58
  • 1
    I’m not going to touch this one with a ten foot pole!     :-)    ⁠ – Scott Jun 26 '18 at 3:17
0

In this case, as in many cases with the English language, one shouldn't try to use too much logic. There are things which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, and what kind of pole is that? One with a length of ten feet.

IIUC, this language particularity goes back rather far in the history of the English language, as it also exists in Dutch.

| improve this answer | |
  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. Please take the tour and when you have a moment, read-up in the help center about how we work. Your answer would benefit from linked references to support your claim. – Bitter dreggs. Apr 5 at 13:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.