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First, I am certainly aware that language is dynamic and English, like all languages, has been constructed over time by usage and culture and hasn't been "engineered". English is what it is because language is dynamic and it evolves over time because of common use and cultural shifts.

How we express plurality has always been a funny observation for me. As an example, let's look at the word "meter". If something is a meter in length, we say "It is a meter long." No modifier is added. However, if we are talking about something larger or smaller than the unit, "meter" is pluralized and becomes "meters".

So far, this is basic English. Now, let's observe a couple of sentences without the plural suffix added to "meter".

He stands 1.8 meter tall.

There are 1,000 meter in a kilometer.

The box is .5 meter wide.

I walked a few meter.

This doesn't feel natural to the English speaker but the meaning of every sentence is easily understood. Plurality can be assumed by all contexts. So, my question is what's the purpose of modifying the original word if plurality can easily be discerned from contextual usage?

I am aware that English has derived from other ancient languages and, likely, this mechanism has carried over from earlier forms of language. Possibly, context might not have been so clear and modifying roots may have been necessary for clearer communication. If there is no need for plurality in our modern form of English, what was the context and nature of an ancestral language that established this mechanism?

I've studied a couple of languages, other than English, in my life. They've all had forms of plurality/singularity that is distinguishable by modifying the root word. However, none of those languages need the modification of the root word either. Plurality or singularity can be understood without it.

Why do we modify nouns to express plurality when it's simply not a necessary change to understand what's being communicated?

  • Of course there are cases where the singular unit is used colloquially for a plural: "he's 6 foot 3" for example – Chris H Apr 26 '18 at 14:26
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    What if I told an air traffic controller that there were [garble grable] planes headed for an emergency landing at your airport? Would the plural marker be useful in that communicative context? Would it at least communicate to the ATC to expect more than one? – green_ideas Apr 26 '18 at 14:27
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    There is this phenomenon: If your native language does not show plural in this way, then you tend to think it is unnecessary in other languages as well. – GEdgar Apr 26 '18 at 14:42
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    In your "There are plane coming in", you mark the fact that the subject's plural by choosing a plural verb. So you're exploiting a redundancy of English when it comes to subjects, namely subject-verb agreement as to number. – Rosie F Apr 26 '18 at 15:57
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    "So, my question is what's the purpose of modifying the original word if plurality can easily be discerned from contextual usage?" Why do you assume that contextual usage would be as easy to use as what we currently have? When I read the "wrong" version, I mentally stumble and it takes me about a second to get past it. (That may just be conditioning, or it may be something more fundamental.) Just because something isn't necessary doesn't mean that it's not useful. Why do we have so many synonyms or choices of word order? Would we be "better off" without them? – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Apr 28 '18 at 9:59
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I believe you answered your own question in your opening paragraph.

First, I am certainly aware that language is dynamic and English, like all languages, has been constructed over time by usage and culture and hasn't been "engineered". English is what it is because language is dynamic and it evolves over time because of common use and cultural shifts.

I don't mean to be dismissive. I just genuinely don't understand what other sort of answer you might be looking for.

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