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There are two imaginable plurals of number one:

  • numbers one
  • number ones

The resources I found on internet say that number ones is the correct plural.

Why is it so? Is there a more general rule from which this is deductible? I would understand it if the first noun (number) would have a function of an adjective, such as in race car. However here the first noun sounds to me as the main noun, with one as a kind of an adjective. Hence I would feel more logical to pluralize number rather than one.

As @CarlWitthoft noted in his answer, what confuses me is that as the software programmer I feel very natural to use sentences like "the table contains three numbers one", "the string contains three characters/digits one".

For me as a mathematician and software programmer one is clearly a kind of a type of a number, not the opposite. So I don't think this question is primarily about "pluralizing noun phrases", but rather about what is the head of the noun phrase number one.

marked as duplicate by Lawrence, David, Mitch, Skooba, curiousdannii Sep 10 '17 at 3:15

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    The head of the noun phrase number one is one. A "number one" (if not treated as a Star Trek rank etc) isn't a type of number or type of one, but if one must make a choice, it is closer to a type of one, as distinguished from, say, the "character one", the "string one", or the "word one". So we pluralise one (the head of the noun phrase) instead of number. – Lawrence Sep 6 '17 at 9:50
  • @Lawrence: for me as a mathematician and software programmer one is clearly a type of a number, not the opposite. So I don't think this question is primarily about "pluralizing noun phrases", but rather about what is the head of the noun phrase number one, so hence it is not a duplicate of the question mentioned by you. – Honza Zidek Sep 6 '17 at 11:17
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    Also a programmer, but "the table contains three numbers one" sounds completely wrong (for, say, 1, 2, 1, 3, 1). I might say "the table contains three number ones", but would be more likely to use "the table contains three instances [or copies] of the number one". – TripeHound Sep 6 '17 at 11:43
  • @Honza I've also done CS research back in the day and still keep my hand in programming, so I understand where you're coming from. My previous comment was trying to do just what your comment mentioned - justify why I think 'one' is the head of this noun phrase. Primarily, it is that 'number' modifies 'one, not he other way around. Out of all the types that 'one' could be (string, number, char, 'bool', etc), it's a 'number' type of 'one'. The important thing is that it is a 'one'. Eg "contains 3 numbers 1" isn't idiomatic in English; "contains 3 instances of number 1" would be better. – Lawrence Sep 6 '17 at 11:43
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    @HonzaZidek I think you have identified the central issue. In English, number acts like an adjective (or noun modifier) for one. One doesn't modify number. – Lawrence Sep 6 '17 at 14:14
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This Collins article (the one at Wiktionary is also well worth looking at, though many correctly consider Collins the more authoritative reference) gives different senses for the term 'number one', indicating that it is either an open compound or a close-bound collocation. These usually pluralise by the affixation of the second orthographic word

(a couple of power showers; some ink wells; two steel bridges).

This is because typically, compounds in English are endocentric – that is, one of the elements is the head of the construction. And that is typically the right-hand element. Power showers are types of showers; 'steel bridge' is [a] bridge made of steel (not steel considered suitable for building bridges).

Though 'number one' is certainly not endocentric when used as an idiom (and probably best not analysed as endocentric when used mathematically*), it seems that the pull of the tendency to add the affix to the right-hand orthographic word wins out on pluralising. *In fact, as 'one' and 'number one' are synonyms ('I'll have three number ones, and five sevens – the brass, not the silver'), unlike 'number' and 'number one', if one insisted on identifying a head, it would be 'one' here.

I'll add that there is an unusual feature to this specific example. Few compound nouns / close-bound collocations are [noun + numeral] in form, and of those that are

(cloud nine, Famous Five, Chicago Seven, Number Six, Birmingham Six ...)

most are too fixed/specific to accept pluralisation. And in any case, 'Five', 'Seven' ... should probably be regarded as nouns rather than numerals (though I'd regard 'cloud nine', 'Famous Five' ... each as a single lexeme) here. 'Chiltern Hundreds' is a rare plurale tantum hereabouts. And 'blues and twos' is very informal.

  • Exactly: Power showers are types of showers; steel bridge is a bridge made of steel! But "number one" is not a type of one, it is a type of a number! – Honza Zidek Sep 5 '17 at 17:43
  • No; 'number one' is an idiom, a single lexeme, when used in the non-mathematical way: not a type of number but defined as a person / organisation (CED) / thing (ODO). But its plural patterns on similar open compounds whose origins are more easily seen. / Referring to the symbol, << number sevens >> etc pattern on << letter g's >>. This authority is certainly not as convincing as but doubtless better known than CGEL etc. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 5 '17 at 19:32
  • As @CarlWitthoft noted in his answer, what confuses me is that as the software programmer I feel very natural to use sentences like "the table contains three numbers one", "the string contains three characters/digits one". – Honza Zidek Sep 6 '17 at 7:09
  • I'm a retired maths teacher and am totally unfamiliar with the 'three numbers one' phrase. I am familiar with '1010 acid', a nickname used in the antioxidant trade, but would consider it too niche a usage for ELU. // Looking on Google, there are quite a few relevant hits for "three number ones", but I haven't been able to find a single one among the many examples a search for "three numbers one" turns up. (You could trawl further through these.) I've got to consider the latter non-standard, though it may be used in computing registers. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 6 '17 at 8:08
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    'Three zeds' (or, if needed, 'three letter zeds'). In the US, they use 'zee'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 6 '17 at 8:43
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Replace "one" with something easier to parse.

"His poker hand had 3 Aces." (not threes Ace) It's clumsy at best to precede a specified numeral (1, 2, or whatever) with the word "number" .

I will note for the software-aware crowd here that one might distinguish between numeric and character values by citing "all the numbers 1" vs. "all the characters '1' " in a code file.

  • And that's exactly what confuses me - as a member the "software-aware crowd" I feel perfectly familiar with the phrase "all the numbers 1". – Honza Zidek Sep 6 '17 at 6:06

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