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I had a student moaning at me because I insisted he say twice and not "two times". And he asked "But why?" to which I replied, "Because that's how you say it!"

However on reflection, his question was a valid one.

In Latin there doesn't appear to be any discernible pattern

  • once is semel
  • twice is bis
  • thrice is ter
  • four times is quater
  • five times is quinquies

but in German the suffix -mal is used,

  • once is einmal
  • twice is zweimal
  • thrice is dreimal
  • four times is viermal

In French the term fois is repeated

  • once is une fois
  • twice is deux fois
  • thrice is trois fois
  • four times is quatre fois

In Italian the noun volta (s) volte (p) is used

  • once is una volta
  • twice is due volte
  • thrice is tre volte
  • four times is quattro volte

In Spanish veces is repeated

  • once is una vez
  • twice is dos veces
  • thrice is tres veces
  • four times is cuatro veces

And all the following languages follow the same pattern. In Danish it's gange; in Norwegian ganger; in Polish raz and razy; Portuguese has vez and vezes; and Welsh uses waith and gwaith.


Questions

  • So why does the English language have three different words for "one time", "two times" and "three times"?
  • Beyond a shadow of a doubt the English thrice is doomed to exile if not extinction; is twice suffering the same fate? For instance, many Italian learners do say "two times"—for them it makes more sense.

Clarification:
I am not suggesting that twice is old fashioned, unnecessary or— heaven forbid—nonsensical. But considering the history of thrice, it is possible that sometime in the future, native speakers will look back fondly on twice as being quaint and quite rare. My second question is in fact asking if there are signs of this happening now.


Related Questions:
Why has the word “thrice” fallen out of common usage?
Twice vs Two Times
Is there a word for four times as much, analogous to once, twice, and thrice?

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    In most language, the low numbers have other uses besides counting. In Romance and Germanic languages, 1 is also an indefinite article, for instance. And singular and plural is standard. For 2, couples, twins, etc. are also standard; so we have the dual number in PIE, for instance, plus words like both, twice, pair, etc. Also normal to have special dual terms. Three is where the breaking point comes; English has rare thrice, but that's a pedants word any more. It gets a laugh in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum -- "He raped Thrace thrice!" But that's it for 3. – John Lawler Feb 27 '15 at 1:20
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    I think you're underestimating English while giving too much credit to others. Actually on(e)-ce, tw(o)-ce, thr(ee)-ce is IMHO pretty solid pattern (for English) and coming from inflectional language they don't seem like 3 different words to me. Your Polish example is wrong, as "raz" is special word meaning "one time" and there are no others to denote more times. Except for constructed ones: jednokrotnie, dwukrotnie, trzykrotnie. Just as once, twice, thrice : ) – Agent_L Feb 27 '15 at 9:26
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    @MartinKrzywinski It depends on the level of the student. For an advanced student, recommending "twice" instead of "two times" is excellent advice on idiomatic usage: in my experience, native speakers very rarely say "two times". For a beginner, it is perhaps overly pedandic to insist on "twice", since "two times" is 100% comprehensible. – David Richerby Feb 27 '15 at 11:09
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    Your question should probably be worded as a question. I suggest the question in your question's detail: Why does the English language have three different words for "one time", "two times" and "three times"? – Smig Feb 27 '15 at 13:11
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    @Mari-LouA I was talking about the header, which I clicked out of curiosity but it didn't tell me what the question was about. I notice the references to the content of the question now, which is clever but probably confusing without looking into the question's detail. – Smig Feb 27 '15 at 13:21
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The reason English has three different words for those is because English has three different words for 1, 2, and 3. It’s like why we have three different words for sixth, eighth, and twelfth: there’s a suffix here used with regular numbers.

The difference is that instead of ‑th for ordinals, it’s ‑ce for adverbials, and you just aren't recognizing that ‑ce adverbs things — or at least, that it adverbed them once upon a time.

That’s because ‑es was a genitive adverbial suffix in Old English. You can see its remains in all kinds of adverbs that are today spelled with an ‑s at the end.

Note that genitive nouns also end in ‑s. The difference is that making genitive nouns (well, and noun phrases with a clitic ‑’s) is still productive. However, making adverbials this way no longer is so, although now and then people coin new ones along existing models by analogy.

Other ‑s examples of adverbs made like once, twice, thrice include such words as afterwards, backwards, besides, betimes, forwards, hereabouts, needs, nowheres, nights, nowadays, sideways, thereabouts, towards, unawares — with plenty more where those came from. As Janus mentions in comments, there is also a broad set of those which gained a parasitic (=inorganic, non-etymological) final ‑t on top of their ‑es/‑s, such as acrost, against, amidst, amongst, betwixt, gainst, whilst.

Because we made adverbs out of things by adding ‑es (later ‑s) all the time, it was the natural way to make an adverbial out of the numbers. The word nonce has the same origin, although that’s used for a noun not an adverb. In Old English, the word for modern once was ænes or enes, genitive forms coming directly from the Old English word for one, which was án.

By the way, the Old English word án that gave birth to modern one and once also gave us the indefinite articles a, an. But when Old English speakers said ænes (again, that was their word for once), it had two different syllables. That situation was not to last, however, and this led to orthographic changes.

Middle English picked up twice and thrice by the same construction, although with differing spelling and pronunciation than we use today. Then around 1500, as ones became monosyllabic, it began to be spelled -ce to indicate the lack of voicing — and, for the cases of twice and thrice, to indicate a change in character of the preceding vowel.

So what’s going on is that you no longer recognize this fossilized morpheme as meaningful. It means exactly the same thing as those other free morphemes you mention in other tongues.

And no: twice isn't going away. Neither are twin, both, halve, or double. Twain might someday be, though, moving into literary use not bar talk. As for your Italian learners, I strongly advise against saying “two times”; it does not sound right to this native ear. Indeed, the OED specifically reports that twice is:

In all senses now the regular substitute for the phrase two times

On the other hand, tuppence and thruppence are hardly worth a farthing today, eh? :-)

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  • @JanusBahsJacquet Gee, and here I thought you were here to remind people of þrisvar. :) – tchrist Feb 27 '15 at 1:19
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    @Mari-LouA: According to OED, the usual word in Old English and early Middle English is sithe. (earliest recorded forms are siða and sið). In Middle English, it turned into tymes. And then times. – ermanen Feb 27 '15 at 2:49
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    @FumbleFingers A lot of them have been obscured later on by adding an unetymological -t (probably taken over from the superlatives in -est): against, amongst, betwixt, whilst, etc. But there are others that still retain just -s, like besides and the variants in -wards. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 27 '15 at 10:41
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: Indeed it does. – Robusto Feb 27 '15 at 15:22
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So why does the English language have three different words for "one time", "two times" and "three times"?

In other words, why do one time, two times and three times have single words (once, twice, thrice) but four times, five times etc. don't have?

Simple answer is; one time, two times and three times were frequently used—as lower numbers like one , two and three tend to be used more frequently—and turned into one word naturally.

From a linguistic standpoint, the adverbial use of the genitive of one was lexicalized and extended to two and three. The morphological formation involved in this process is fusion.

The usual word for this sense of times in Old English and early Middle English is sithe. (probably a softer pronunciation of tide)

In Old English the case is either the instrumental, or the accusative governed by a prep. The instr. pl. síðum became Middle English sīðen, and finally assumed the same form as the sing. In place of a numeral, an adj. or adv. might be used, as in eft-sith(es) eft adv. Compounds, fele-sithe(s) fele adj., and oftsithes adv.). With the Scottish forms (δ) cf. modern North Frisian -sis, as in twasis twice, manningsis many times.

For example, OED lists the earliest phrases as æne siða and ænne sið for one time:

  • c825 Vesp. Psalter lxi. 12 Æne siða spreocende wes God.
  • OE Beowulf 1579 Oftor micle ðonne on ænne sið.

Then, we can see that it starts forming into a single word (ænes, anes, ones) and eventually becomes what we call once today:

  • OE Lambeth Psalter lxxxviii. 36 Semel iuraui in sancto meo : ænes ic swor on minum halgan.
  • ?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 1078 Þatt wass aȝȝ æness o þe ȝer.
  • a1225 (▸?a1200) MS Trin. Cambr. in R. Morris Old Eng. Homilies (1873) 2nd Ser. 109 (MED), The sunne..arist anes a dai.
  • a1325 (▸c1250) Gen. & Exod. (1968) l. 3288 Ilke dai..Ones he ðor it sungen rigt.

But then, why it is changing back to two separate words (thrice > three times)? This is related to the typological shift in the language from synthetic to analytic by language historians. [Synthetic languages have a high morpheme-per-word ratio and analytic languages have a low morpheme-per-ratio]

Sources:


Beyond a shadow of a doubt the English thrice is doomed to exile if not extinction, is twice suffering the same fate? For instance, many Italian learners do say "two times"—for them it makes more sense.

Language is changing but morphological changes or formations slowed down in Modern English. Twice might seem like changing into two times but it still sounds more natural in most contexts and it is more common; however two times is gaining usage in informal speech mainly.

Twice wins the usual Google Ngram battle obviously but there is, of course, more to it. Below is an analysis and comparison of twice and two times based on selected British and American newspapers (from the book One Language, Two Grammars?: Differences Between British and American English edited by Günter Rohdenburg, Julia Schlüter).

While once is firmly established and thrice has been generally ousted by the more regular (analytic) three times, there seems to be a competition between still-frequent (synthetic) adverb twice and two times. (rephrased)

enter image description here

The data in the figure show the rate of occurrence of two items in certain high-frequency collocations.7 Though twice is still well entrenched here, it is used more sparingly in AmE than BrE. The frequencies of two times contract in the reverse direction. This suggests that there might be a compensatory relationship between the two adverbs, with AmE favoring the more regular option.8

7 The environments searched includes twice/two times as much/often/large, etc. twice/two times the size/length/speed, etc. and twice/two times a day/week/year, etc.
8 The case of special temporal adverb twice has a (distant) parallel in the time expression fortnight and the derived adjective/adverb fortnightly. Here again, even the formal AmE makes much less use of the synthetic and more opaque term: in The Washington Times,forthnight(ly) occurs merely 1:5 times pmw, while in the British Times it has a frequency of 28.4 pmw.

OED is bold enough to say the below but it might not be considering all the relevant data:

two times as advb. phr. (expressing repetition or multiplication) is now used only with a demonstrative or defining word; otherwise twice is substituted

  • 1574 E. Hellowes tr. A. de Guevara Familiar Epist. 174 Two times I haue moued the Cardinall Tortosa in your busines.
  • 1916 N.E.D. at Two, Mod. I have known it happen two separate times. I called upon him three times, but saw him only once; the other two times he was away.
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    Google NGrams backs you up here – Pureferret Feb 27 '15 at 9:43
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    This is a good answer. Thank you so much for taking the time to thoroughly research your answer" – Mari-Lou A Feb 27 '15 at 10:08
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    The Ngrams for 'two times' will include noise such as 'there were one or two times' and 'two times table'. But far worse is the statement 'two times [may be] turning into a serious competitor for the still-frequent (synthetic) adverb twice' when it comprises less than 1% of even the US data. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 27 '15 at 10:25
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    @EdwinAshworth good points about the "noise" aspect of Ngrams, they can give false results. The bar graph is enlightening until you notice the 0.25 number and compare it to 25.0. I had missed that bit, so thanks for mentioning it. – Mari-Lou A Feb 27 '15 at 10:43
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    I'm not sure I'd use Ngrams at all here. The noise is hard to estimate. Even so, the US ratio of tokens for 'twice' to 'two times' shows that the latter is at most 1% of the former. Perhaps looking up individual instances of 'two times' on a raw Google search and discounting false positives (where the twice sense is not intended) would give a truer picture. But there are a lot of examples (eg firms, song titles) that it might be hard to estimate the relevance of even here. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 27 '15 at 13:29
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Jim Morisson would have sounded funny singing 'Love me twice baby, love twice today, love me twice girl ..."

But then, Lennon and McCartney's "One after 909" works better with "Move over once, move over twice, c'mon baby don't you be cold as ice," because "two times" does not rhyme with "ice."

But while we are asked to "Knock three times" on the ceiling, we should knock "twice on the pipes" if the answer is no.

It's a matter of style, rather than correct grammar. While brevity is desirable, the lengthier "two times" has its place if it serves to emphasize or enhance the cadence.

And as an example of when one should say "two times" rather than "twice", we would say "The last two times ..." rather than "The last twice ..."

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    I think the Doors were one of the best bands in the 60s but song lyrics are not an infallible guideline as to how English should be spoken. I'm not saying there is only one way, that there aren't alternatives, but the Doors phrase "love me two times babe" has exactly the same meaning as "love me twice babe", which by the way sounds cool in a song but less so in speech. – Mari-Lou A Feb 27 '15 at 8:04
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    ML .. song lyrics are an absolutely infallible guideline to which words are and are not commonplace, in the most up-to-the minute topical sense. "Guideline" is not even the right word to use - they literally define, are, popular usage. There's almost literally nothing else: they are the gold standard. – Fattie Feb 27 '15 at 8:23
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    I like this answer but it doesn't explain why English needs it and other languages don't. There is no need in rythm in Danish or German? – Pierre Arlaud Feb 27 '15 at 9:31
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    @JoeBlow: Yes and no; like all poetry, lyrics suffer a certain degree of distortion from the need to fit some desired pattern. So comparing possible phrasings in a song to determine the wider comparison is highly dubious; a given phrase may work well in one context but not in another, and neither may be particularly indicative of the actual usage patterns, beyond the bare fact that they do work. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 27 '15 at 20:54
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    @ Pierre, English is not a language based on need or logical construct. It is an amalgam of languages, and often contains multiple words from various donor languages to serve the same purpose. There are some contextual influences that favor one word over the other in certain instances, but fewer cut and dried rules – William of Ockham May 7 '15 at 22:44
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(1) Taio Cruz - Dynamite

(Pop song lyrics are a great pedagogical device in these cases. Link)

The idea that twice is facing extinction seems whacky, look up the plays of that song.

Note that the pop song industry targets the lowest conceivable intelligence and educational demographic market...and indeed targets LCD international English.

(2) "twice" is a commonplace word. All you have to tell the students is "that is a commonplace word."

(3) "However on reflection, his question was a valid one." No, it's silly. All he or she can possibly do is ask some English speakers if it is a common word. If they all say "sure", then, if he/she disagrees it is bizarre.

(4) Regarding Latin, German etc - the issue would seem to be irrelevant, right? I can see no connection, at all, between etymology and "what words are currently commonplace".

We could trivially list a number of words that are currently very popular (with such and such etymology), and we could trivially list a number of words that are currently not popular (with such and such etymology). Right?

(5) Hence regarding your question... "Is 'twice' heading to extinction?"

As far as I know the only way to answer such questions is (a) demonstrate the word is used in commercial hugely successful pop music industry lyrics or (b) just canvas opinion of native speakers. I'd say "sure, it's commonplace".

For example, parents often yell at the kids "don't make me ask you twice, damnit!!" It would be very unusual to yell "...two times" "think twice" "i had to run to the office twice today" are all highly natural, common phrases (with the usual caveat that any such claim about "what is common" in language is just an opinion).

  • The reason for my posting examples from different European languages was to show that the English language is quite unique in having three single words that appear unrelated to the term times. Secondly, I took my student's question seriously 1) I told him that he had to learn twice but that two times was not wrong (I really don't think it's necessary for me to post the entire dialogue, just the gist) 2) I posted my question on EL&U. – Mari-Lou A Feb 27 '15 at 7:45
  • On the other hand, your answer is border-close to being patronizing, and doesn't take into account the influence non-native speakers have on molding and modifying English, look at the differences between Indian English, American English, Australian English and British English. First language interference has an impact on how English is spoken today. 3) My actual question are in fact TWO, but you chose to dismiss the first one. – Mari-Lou A Feb 27 '15 at 7:46
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    patronizing?! once bitten, twice shy. I'm sorry it must be one of those written-V-spoken language things. I don't even know how to be patronizing, I'm just a fragile drunk. :) I'll add mroe smilies next time. This is twice this has happened. – Fattie Feb 27 '15 at 8:21
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    (2) isn't really relevant. Yes, "twice" is a commonplace word, and more common than "two times", but that does not mean "two times" is uncommon, and certainly not that "two times" is wrong because nobody says that. Learn It: "When it comes to twice, this is more often used than two times, although two times is also quite common in informal usage." – hvd Feb 27 '15 at 8:59
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    It's an outrageous piece of "opinionating", but +1 for the pop song industry targets the lowest conceivable intelligence and educational demographic. People do sometimes need to be reminded of such "truths". – FumbleFingers Feb 27 '15 at 13:20

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