60

I could have:

  • Two books
  • One book
  • Zero books

Why is zero followed by a plural form?


I don't expect English to always make sense, but everything has a reason, even if the reason is stupid. The definitions of "singular" and "plural" per Merriam-Webster:

  • Singular (adj): of, relating to, or being a word form denoting one person, thing, or instance

  • Plural (adj): of, relating to, or constituting a class of grammatical forms usually used to denote more than one or in some languages more than two

So by this logic, our choices are "one" or "more than one". Maybe it's a bug :-)

  • 1
    Related: Correct plural form of a zero quantified noun. – Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:29
  • 2
    Not really. You're asking why, and in that question there is no explanation about the "why". :) – Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:34
  • 3
    "No" is usually plural as well: "I have no books." Sometimes it's not: "No moon was in the sky" (unless you live on Mars or Jupiter). I would guess the reason that "zero" is plural is that it inherited the most common plurality of "no". In fact, zero is not always plural. You say "zero tolerance" and not "zero tolerances". – Peter Shor Mar 10 '14 at 17:27
  • 1
    These both seem OK: "I have no book." ... "I have no books." But for some reason "I have zero book." seems wrong. – GEdgar Oct 27 '15 at 12:39
  • 1
    BTW "I have no books" describes a clear, present and physical circumstance. "I have no book" might be equally clear and present but it deals with the broad theoretical concept of books, not any actual physical objects. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 1 '18 at 21:10
55

Substitute the word "any" in the place of zero and it makes sense. Instead of saying "I have zero books." you are saying "I do not have any books."

In this construction, the plural is not referring to the zero-quantity of books you have, but instead refers to a (vague and undefined) collection of books, none of which you have.

  • That's the direction my thoughts were headed. I can't have 0 books, instead I have a lack thereof; the same way I can't make something colder, I can only take away heat. So I guess the confusion stems from a lack of a method to depict not actually having what we're counting. – Gary Aug 17 '11 at 16:56
  • 1
    @Fantabulum, the concept of zero as a number is much more recent than other numbers (some accounts, 9th century AD.) That may where the confusion arises. – Andrew Neely Aug 17 '11 at 17:02
  • Great information, thanks! I was not aware of that. – Gary Aug 17 '11 at 17:22
  • 2
    Also, consider that zero is not a real number -- it is a concept. The concept of "not having any" applies to the entirety of the object. Therefore, it is indeed logical to apply the concept of zero to all instances of "book", hence, "zero books". This also applies to negative values -- you can't literally have -2 books. – Mike Christian Aug 17 '11 at 18:00
  • I agree that I can't actually have zero books. We're not referring to the collection as a whole, as it would always be singular. I still can't wrap my head around nonexistent entity == plural unless I go with the fact that we decided what plural was before we decided that 0 can represent a number. – Gary Aug 17 '11 at 18:42
14

In English, only 1 is singular; the other numbers are plural.

  • 14
    I don't want to be a bother, but this doesn't actually answer the question. The OP asked why when the quantity is zero, the noun becomes plural. – Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 15:33
  • 12
    @Alenanno: I think this answer is saying "Because that's how it is!" and it might be that there's nothing more to it. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 17 '11 at 15:40
  • 4
    Does that mean that negative 1 is plural? I always thought it was singular. "There are -1 dollars in my account" seems odd. – Thaddee Tyl Aug 17 '11 at 15:44
  • 2
    @Thaddee Tyl: It does sound odd. In English, this particular sentence would be more correct as "My account is overdrawn by 1 dollar". Usually a negative number is said as an absence/loss of the positive number. Instead of "There are -3 boxes on the inventory" it would be said as "There are 3 boxes missing/not present/absent on the inventory". – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 17 '11 at 15:47
  • 4
    I would also argue that 379 degrees are not the same of −1 degrees; 379 degrees are 360 degrees plus 19 degrees. That means "make a complete turn, then add 19 degrees." – kiamlaluno Aug 17 '11 at 17:15
8

This question was answered some years ago, but it was answered too simplistically.


Zero (the absence of value) is intrinsically partitive, which means the word it modifies must be expressed in its partitive form.


It may seem upside-down and backward to consider "zero" to be partitive, but it is. It can be thought of as, "an infinite amount of nothing" or, in other words, you do not know what value could be represented if it were not zero. Whenever there is ambiguity, the word is partitive. It may seem counterintuitive to think of zero as ambiguous, but linguistically (and if you'll forgive the religious reference), "only God can know if there's really nothing there."

My best example? "The cup is empty." Even in the vacuum of space the sentence is factually false (there are particles in the cup), despite being contextually true (but none of them are water).

Linguistic precision is the playground of lawyers. Even scientists don't care, and needn't care, to so great a degree. The law, however, is only expressible with language — and language is by its nature imprecise.

Most nouns take their partitive form by adding an "s."

I have zero books.

I have no books.

I haven't any books.

However, some words require additional context to understand their partitive construction. For example, the word "value." Are you talking about the value of a pound of flour? or the number of values assignable to a mathematical variable? or are you discussing human morals?

It has no value. (A pound of spoiled flour.)

None of the values are correct. (Mathematical variable assignments.)

He has no values. (Moral attributes.)

Likewise, from a comment to the question:

I have no tolerance for that. (The ability to withstand influence.)

No tolerances were specified. (The limits of applied influence.)

Therefore, as a general rule, the word following the number "zero" or the word "zero" must be partitive, and that explains why some words appear pluralized after the word "zero:" because they're in their partitive form.


The Curious Case of the Word "No."

Although I used examples with the word "no" (and similar constructions), it should be noted that the word "no" is NOT consistently and predictably synonymous with the number or word "zero." It's more flexible. Think of it this way: the number and word "zero" will always mean "the absence of all value," but the word "no" can mean "the absence of one."

Consider the following examples provided by @PeterShor:

The car had no driver.

The car had no drivers.

Both sentences are valid.

  • The first sentence makes no assumption about the number of people who could be available to drive the car. Indeed, you might use this sentence because you want to focus on a condition of the car: there is (generally speaking) only one driver's seat and one steering wheel. It can be said the car in this construction is more imporant than the availability of one or more drivers. Thus, in this construction, "no" means "the absence of one."

  • The second sentence does make an assumption about the number of people who could be available to drive the car. Indeed, you might use this sentence because you want to focus on the availability of a pool of drivers (such as the driving staff at a pizza delivery business) rather than on the fact the car isn't being driven. It can be said the availability of drivers is more important than the car in this sentence. Thus, in this construction, "no" means "the absence of many."

However, "zero" always means "the absence of everything" and therefore the modified word must always take the partitive form. Thus, "There were zero drivers" is correct and "There were zero driver" is wrong.

  • 1
    The thing after no isn't always plural, even if it is countable. Which would you say? "The car had no drivers." or "The car had no driver." And in a different context, you would use the plural form: "There were no drivers available for the morning delivery." But it's still "The car had zero drivers." – Peter Shor Oct 27 '17 at 20:42
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    @PeterShor, Whether I got that right or not, it was fun to answer. Thanks for pointing out the examples. – JBH Oct 27 '17 at 22:14
  • "I have more than zero books on astronomy." Is this true if I have only one book on astronomy? Is it grammatically correct? Is it misleading? – dreftymac Jul 23 '18 at 19:02
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    @dreftymac, is it grammatically correct? Yes. Is it misleading? Possibly. The rules of grammar have nothing to do with why a phrase is used (or lawyers wouldn't have jobs). Note that if you wanted to NOT be misleading, you wouldn't use the phrase in the first place, you'd say, "I have one book on astronomy." – JBH Jul 23 '18 at 20:13
  • @JBH good points, great post! – dreftymac Jul 23 '18 at 20:25
1

One is the only singular number, and even though zero is less than one it should still be used as a plural. “I have zero books.” is grammatically correct, while “I have zero book” is not. “I have one book” is correct because the number one is singular.

0

"I have no book." would also be correct. It makes more sense when referred to a single object, though. Here's an example:

"Admit it! You have the book." "No, I told you, I have no book."

It can also mean "not one" or "not a single book".

  • 2
    With no in place of zero, however, you can use either a singular noun or a plural noun. For example, both "I have no objection" and "I have no objections" are standard in English; but only "I have zero objections" is. – Sven Yargs Nov 2 '17 at 17:24
0

The simplest way to think of this is to remember that "no" is the same as saying "none of the books in the world." Since that is what you mean by "no books" it makes sense to use the plural form. Examples: I had no students in the lecture yesterday. (I had none of the students assigned to this class in the lecture yesterday.) The dog will have no treats today. (The dog will have none of the treats that are in the house today.)

protected by tchrist Sep 1 '18 at 18:44

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