In US legal practice, we often refer to numbered items: Interrogatory No. 1, Request for Admission No. 3, U.S. Patent No. 5,555,555.

What part of the item should be pluralized? That is, should one write "Questions No. 1, 2, and 3" or "Question Nos. 1, 2, and 3?"

My preference is the former, because it is the questions that are of interest, not the numbers. One can imagine a scenario in which the numbers are of interest. E.g., "The question numbers 1 and 2 are written in arabic format, but question numbers 3 and 4 are written as roman numerals." But in the usual case, what the author is concerned about is the item, not the number: "Questions number 1-4 have concise answers, but questions number 5-6 may be rhetorical."

I acknowledge that the issue can be avoided by simply omitting "number(s)" and writing "Questions 1-4" or "Patents 5,555,555 and 5,555,556." But where's the fun in that?

Does anyone have a compelling or definitive answer?

  • Another way I think you could avoid the issue is rephrasing along the lines of ""Of the questions, numbers 1-4 have concise answers, but numbers 5-6 may be rhetorical." – herisson Sep 26 '15 at 5:31
  • While the logic of "the questions ... are of interest, not the numbers" is appealing, the salient factor in terms of stylistic decisions would more likely be that "No." can signify an abbreviation of "Numbered" as easily as it signifies an abbreviation of "Number". So, "Questions Numbered 1, 3, and 7", etc. would be what is abbreviated, not "Question Numbers 1, 3 and 7". – JEL Sep 26 '15 at 6:47

While your argument for pluralizing the first noun is logical, in practice it doesn't seem to be a unanimously accepted standard. I can find examples of each style used in different places on the web. For some publications, there seems to be no standard at all:

The most definitive answer would be from a style guide; if you're publishing something, the publisher probably has a house style guide, and I believe legal departments of organizations often have style guides as well.

Here's what the King County style guide says, for example:

No. Use as the abbreviation for number when used with a figure, in both singular and plural forms: the No. 3 choice, invoice Nos. 4311 and 5207, lot No. 23. Don't use the symbol or sign, #, to stand for No. or number.

So it says to use the singular form "invoice" and to pluralize "Nos." It's typical that no especially compelling reasoning is given. Conformity is the main goal of this sort of organizational style guide, and logic comes second.

(There's no special reason for picking this particular guide, it was just easy to find. You don't need to follow its advice here; my point is that you should follow the advice given in your own particular style guide about this issue.)

By the way, it seems to me that there is a third option you didn't mention: "Questions Nos. 1, 2, and 3." Some people do in fact appear to take that option: "The Stone Fort And Manitoba Post Treaties Numbers 1 & 2." I also found one document that has an inconsistent use in the title versus in the text: Change List for Revision Numbers 1 and 2:

...the changes that have been made with Revisions Numbers 1 and 2, respectively.

Of course, these are only a few examples and could easily be mistakes, but I just want to argue that this is a possibility.

In terms of logical arguments for one particular style: here's an argument for "Question Nos. 1, 2, and 3."

It's common in this kind of context to use "No. 1," "No. 2" etc. by themselves as noun phrases referring to objects rather than to actual numerals. And when they are used on their own as noun phrases, it seems logical to pluralize them when appropriate. For example, you can say "The questions were easy. Numbers 1 and 2 were multiple-choice, and numbers 3 and 4 were fill-in-the-blank."

Now suppose you want to clarify what type of objects Numbers 1 and 2 refer to. You can just add a noun adjunct before them, which will generally be in the singular, giving "Question Numbers 1 and 2." I don't know if this is the actual reasoning that led to this format, but hopefully this makes some sense.

  • Note that "invoice" in the King County example is not capitalized; nor is "lot". In the examples given by the OP, the nouns for the numbered items are capitalized. That seems to be an operative distinction. – JEL Sep 26 '15 at 6:00
  • @JEL: well, taking the specific example of "Patent(s) No(s). X and Y" that the OP gave, it's still possible to find both variants used "in the wild." I will of course look for a more applicable style guide; I'm searching legal style guides right now. – herisson Sep 26 '15 at 6:11
  • See this for comparison – JEL Sep 26 '15 at 6:14
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    @JEL: Thanks for running the ngrams. Interesting, at least. – Ben Kleinman Sep 26 '15 at 8:14
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    @Sumelic: the problem with "reputable" sources seems to be that they're all over the place. It behooves lawyers to follow the usage patterns of the statutes and courts that control their legal practice. I could probably run a search in some of the legal databases and see what happens. – Ben Kleinman Sep 26 '15 at 8:14

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