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My coworker stated that he had a five-dollar bill in his pocket. I jokingly made a snarky pun along the lines of, "So, you have five-dollar bills". Arguments ensued.

My argument for the grammatical rules were this example:

An ATM only carries Twenty-dollar bills. (outdated info, but just as an example)

You would say that the ATM has twenty-dollar bills (regardless of how many individual bills are in the ATM... if the ATM only had one bill left, you could still say that the ATM only has twenty-dollar bills.

My coworker's argument is that one could not say that he has five-dollar bills but rather that he has 1 five-dollar bill or that he has five dollars. Now, in both of his examples, I would say that those are valid.

Q. Is it valid to also say that he has five-dollar bills even when he is only carrying 1?

P.S. and more examples: A bank, has one-dollar bills, and five-dollar bills, etc... if the bank were out of money except for a single dollar bill, could I still say that the back has one-dollar bills?... why/why not

For clarity, I'm not looking for a work-around. The effect of confusion in this case was desired, though, I can't seem to find the actual governing rule of grammar that covers this. I do appreciate the suggestions though.

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    It may be logically true or false, to say that a person with one "thing" has "things", but there is no question of English grammar here. False statements can be grammatically correct, and most are. – MetaEd Jul 26 '16 at 18:42
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    OK, you two, back to work. – deadrat Jul 26 '16 at 19:19
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This is a difference in aspect, specifically the gnomic aspect, defined by Wikipedia as.

Used to describe an aspect, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the flow of time to any particular conception ...

In other words, it describes things that generally happen, or that someone does regularly, that aren't limited to having happened, happening, or will be happening.

In English, we express the gnomic (and habitual) with what is known as the "simple present," "I go to school." This is not always the case in other languages.

An example of this use in English is:

Rabbits are fast.

Now there are some things here that signal this is gnomic, namely that "rabbits" is neither definite (has "the") or indefinite ("a"), and it is plural, but note that the verb is just the same as if you were talking about rabbits racing a turtle and said:

The rabbits are fast.

This is how come you can say "ATMs have five-dollar bills," (note: "ATM" not "The ATM") because, in general, they do. In the same vein, if you were talking about your coworker, you could say (both are gnomic):

John works on the database.

John has two kids.

But if you were talking about what John is doing right now, you use the present progressive:

John is eating lunch.

But for some reason, "to have" doesn't behave this way. I don't know why, but it would be an interesting question. To talk about what John has on his person right now, you would always use the simple present (note: * means that sentence is wrong):

John has a five-dollar bill.

* John is having a five-dollar bill.

So as you can see, this is just the fact that the gnomic use of "to have" and the simple present use of "to have" is identical. Some languages would disambiguate the two, but English does not. This is called syncretism, and we do not usually see it appear because most of the time when we talk about the present, we use the present progressive ("-ing") instead of the simple past.

In other words, no you can't say your coworker "has five-dollar bills" to mean he has only one right now, because you are talking about what he has right now, not what he usually has. If he always brings a couple of fivers to work, you might say that.

I understand this is a challenging point of English grammar to learners of English.

  • I guess the most significant point to this (for my understanding) is that at the time of making the statement, it is implied that I know for certain my co-worker only has 1 five-dollar bill. However, that may not always be the case. If for example, he picked up a five-dollar bill, there would at that time be no determinate way to for a third party to know in total how many instances of five-dollar bills the other party possesses; therefore my argument would be that it could be considered acceptable in that situation to state the other party has (an indefinite amount of) five-dollar bills. – MegaMark Oct 20 '16 at 22:27
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    To my knowledge, there is no concise way to state "He has at least one five dollar bill that I know of, but possibly more I am unaware of," probably because every statement you make has the implicit assumption it is based only on what you know and not what you don't – Azor Ahai Oct 20 '16 at 22:47
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An ATM only carries Twenty-dollar bills. (outdated info, but just as an example)

You would say that the ATM has twenty-dollar bills (regardless of how many individual bills are in the ATM... if the ATM only had one bill left, you could still say that the ATM only has twenty-dollar bills.

The problem here is use of has/had. It's vague. In actuality, ATMs dispense twenty-dollar bills, that is, they dispense twenty-dollar bills until their supplies of twenty dollar bills have been fully dispensed. If you knew somehow that an ATM had only one twenty-dollar bill left to dispense, it would be incorrect to say that that ATM had twenty-dollar bills, i.e., more than one twenty dollar bill.

My coworker stated that he had a five-dollar bill in his pocket. I jokingly made a snarky pun along the lines of, "So, you have five-dollar bills".

If your coworker had a five-dollar bill, as stated, it was incorrect of you to say that he/she had five-dollar bills, i.e., more than one five-dollar bill. Your ATM analogy doesn't work.

  • But being a third party, there's no way for me to know how many five-dollar bills the other party has in total. I can say for certain that he has at least 1 five-dollar bill in his pocket. But I cannot objectively state that he only possesses 1 five-dollar bill from the information provided. – MegaMark Oct 20 '16 at 22:31
  • Right. He said he had a five-dollar bill. Most people would interpret that to mean one, but it could mean one or more. That's all that you can say. You have no basis for saying he has five-dollar bills. – Richard Kayser Oct 21 '16 at 1:16
  • The basis (I would argue) is that there is at the time an indefinite amount of items (note the 's'). Whether there are 0 items, 1 item, or many items... we do/could not know. Having said that, what is the proper way of indicating an unknown amount of instances of an item? Note that in the above statement, the only time we do not include the 's' for pluralization is when we have only 1. In any other amount the plural is proper. So this leads me to believe that 'undefined' != 1 and thus, plural is proper – MegaMark Oct 21 '16 at 16:17
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From what I've researched (briefly), the difference is in the terms being used as amounts or as denominations. Therefore it is valid to say that a person, possessing only a single five-dollar [denomination] bill, has five-dollar [denomination] bills. Of course they also possess five dollars in value.

As a bonus example, I thought of this:

Mark has one sheet of paper.

a)Does Mark have any paper?

b)Does Mark have sheets of paper?

c)Does Mark have sheets of papers?

d)Does Mark have any papers?

a. Yes, Mark has [a denomination of]paper.

b. Yes, Mark has a sheet of paper, which is the denomination of paper being asked of.

c. No, Mark only has a single sheet of paper- the denomination works, but not the plural

d. Yes, Mark has a single sheet of paper. Therefore, has [at least one instance of any denomination of] paper.

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Just use the term "fiver" , "tenner" and that avoids a lot of your issues.

For twenty you'll have to appropriate an Italian term and use "venti"

For single dollars, use the Canadian term "Loonie"

I have no solutions for $50 and up

  • Use the latin maybe? 50 - quinquaginta, 100 - centum, etc. Note: if it catches on, I want credit! – ventsyv Jul 26 '16 at 18:41
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    In the US, I think "fives" and "tens" "twenties" "fifties" "hundreds" and "ones/singles" are much more common. "Fiver" and "tenner" sound like British words. – Catija Jul 26 '16 at 18:52
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    This does not answer the question. The question is whether you can use the plural form when you have a single bill in your pocket. Switching to "fiver" only means the question becomes whether you can use "fivers" when you have a single bill in your pocket. – MetaEd Jul 27 '16 at 16:20
  • @ventsyv AFAIK OP is looking for a solution in English. But then again, I could be wrong. – reddit Oct 16 '16 at 5:11
  • Indeed I was not looking for a work-around but an explanation or governing rule to determine whether or not the statement is valid from the perspective of limited information... yes he has at least 1 instance of a five-dollar bill... that much I know. But I couldn't say that I know he only has 1. Thus, it seems logical to me to state he has (any number of) five-dollar bills. – MegaMark Oct 20 '16 at 22:34

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