I'm on a trip to map different cardinalities to single-word quantifiers. In that context, I'm wondering if there is a word to say "zero or more", e.g. the same as what once is to "one and only one".

For instance, instead of having to write "In the input, letters can be separated by zero, one, or many spaces", it would be shorter to write "[...] letters can be separated by ??? spaces".

According to Thesaurus and Cambridge Dictionary, several and its synonyms could fit:

An amount that is not exact but is fewer than many.
More than two and fewer than many; some.

Some, or a small number of something.
Small number or not many.

Some, or even the smallest amount or number of something.

To mean "a large number of".

Many and of several different types.

Small in numbers or amount, often spread over a large area.

My understanding of these definitions leads me to think that the words could be approximately ordered:

0 < 1 < 2 < *
  |       | |- many
  |       | |- manifold
  |       |- several
  |       |- some
  |       |- few
  |       |- sparse
  |- any

I'm already following a path, but I was hoping to find better candidates here.

0        >   None
0 .. 1   >   Optional
0 .. N   >   Any
1        >   Once
1 .. N   >   Several
  • 2
    None of those words can include a count of zero. Aside from any, which can refer to a single item, they all describe at least two items. – Jason Bassford Jul 27 '19 at 18:07
  • If it makes no difference if there are spaces or not, why bother mentioning it? If any input is valid (so long as it's a letter, I assume), the person can't make an error. – Jason Bassford Jul 27 '19 at 18:10
  • In your example, it's interesting to know an instance of 2 letters separated by 0 spaces. In that case, they are not separated, are they? – miw Jul 27 '19 at 21:09
  • The concept of "zero or more" is not very useful in everyday language. It exists pretty much only in highly technical computer specs. – DJClayworth Jul 28 '19 at 2:23
  • You don’t need any words. You can simply say, “In the input, letters can be separated by spaces.” The use of “can” covers the zero condition (if spaces were required then that would turn to must) and the plural “spaces covers the multiple scenario. – Jim Sep 25 '19 at 21:07

English isn't particularly well provided with quantifiers, and as you have noted, the ones it has are imprecise. A more natural way of expressing your example in English is to phrase it in terms of possibility or permission: “the input letters may be separated by spaces”.

But more generally, if you need to express precise bounds for a quantity you ought to use numeric qualifiers even in informal speech. I've occasionally been surprised by people who understood “a couple of x” to mean “at least one, but possibly three or more”, when in fact I meant “exactly two”.

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Instead of writing

In the input, letters can be separated by zero, one, or many spaces

or struggling to otherwise describe permissible ways of spacing, I suggest this

It does not matter if the input letters are spaced.

That will deal with the issue without having to devote any more space than necessary to something that does not matter.

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In mathematics, the term "whole numbers" refers to all positive integers (i.e., natural numbers) along with zero.


That said, I'm not sure that I would prefer saying, "In the input, letters can be separated by any whole number of spaces," or saying, "...by whole-number spaces," which would use the term "whole number" as a noun adjunct, over simply saying, "...by zero or more spaces." For me, "zero or more" is the most succinct option and the most easily understood by everyone, but if you're talking to mathematicians or an audience that would readily understand the nuance conveyed by the term "whole number," maybe you'd want to use "whole number."

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I would simply say, "Letters may be separated by spaces". By saying "may", you are making it optional -- there may or may not be spaces. "Letters are separated by spaces", or "Letters must be separated by spaces", mean definitely one or more.

If you want to be more explicit, you can say "Letters may optionally be separated by spaces."

Frankly, "letters may be separated by zero or more spaces" is the least ambiguous.

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