The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 385) has this to say about "cardinal numerals":

7.6 Cardinal numerals

The cardinal numerals are primarily determinatives but they have a secondary use in which they inflect for number and hence belong in the noun category: They set off in threes/enrolled in their hundreds. In practice, only low or round numerals are used in this way. 24


24Numerals are often used metalinguistically, as the names of symbols: They added a ‘3’ before all the Brisbane telephone numbers.

What's the part of speech of the following numbers in CGEL?

Now, these orbital images tell me that the hostiles' numbers have gone from a few hundred to well over 2,000 in one day. <Avatar (2009)>

Since they don't inflect for number, they don't seem to belong in the noun category. Nor do they look like determinatives. The only choice left is to say that they are being used metalinguistically, but this doesn't seem right either.

  • 2
    Fused determiner heads.
    – BillJ
    Dec 13, 2023 at 8:29
  • 1
    There's an argument that numbers form a distinct grammatical category. Are you specifically interested in what CGEL says or will you accept alternative theories?
    – Stuart F
    Dec 13, 2023 at 11:03
  • @StuartF I'm primarily interested in CGEL's approach, but other approaches might be necessary if CGEL can't explain what these numbers are.
    – JK2
    Dec 13, 2023 at 11:10
  • You ask a lot of questions like this. Why did you not like the other answers?
    – tchrist
    Dec 13, 2023 at 12:01
  • @tchrist I don't think I've asked "a lot of questions like this". This question is clearly different from my other questions.
    – JK2
    Dec 13, 2023 at 12:08

3 Answers 3


In CGEL terminology, cardinal numerals—like 2,000 (or two thousand) as used in your sentence—are in the lexical category (part of speech)* of determinative.

With the exceptions noted in your quote (and which don’t apply to your sentence), CGEL says:

We will therefore treat all numerals as belonging to the lexical category determinative, on a par with other unmodified determinatives . . . (p. 385)

Your determinative appears as part of a determiner in a fused-head noun phrase. Under Types of determiner (pp. 355–356), we see:

. . . determinatives can . . . combine the function of determiner with that of head in the fused-head construction, as in [4vi–viii]:
. . . [4] vi He gave ten copies to me and [six] to the others. [simple fused head] . . .

In a simple fused-head noun phrase, “a head can be added that is recoverable from an antecedent” (p. 333). In your sentence, the recoverable antecedent is not the noun numbers, but it might be hostiles—as in two thousand hostiles (that is, if you don’t mind a possessive antecedent like hostiles’; if you do mind, look for a suitable antecedent earlier in the discourse).

To put together well over two thousand, see “Minor Determiners PP” (p. 355).

Summary: 2000 is a determinative.

*The parts of speech according to CGEL are: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, determinative, subordinator, coordinator, interjection.

  • In the Avatar example, you say "the recoverable antecedent is not the noun numbers, but it might be hostiles —as in two thousand hostiles." If that's the case, why can't we replace 2000 with 2000 hostiles? *...the hostiles' numbers have gone from a few hundred hostiles to well over 2,000 hostiles in one day. In CGEL's example, on the other hand, you can add copies: He gave ten copies to me and six copies to the others.
    – JK2
    Dec 23, 2023 at 4:24
  • You can replace 2000 with 2000 hostiles. Hostiles is a noun here, meaning hostile entities. Compare e.g. 2000 natives, where natives stands for native people. Dec 23, 2023 at 4:41
  • Well, I can't seem to add hostiles in that sentence, because we're talking about "numbers" not "hostiles". How about this example then? 13 is an unlucky number. Do you think 13 here is also a fused-head noun phrase?
    – JK2
    Dec 23, 2023 at 4:52
  • Numbers here means “a multitude of people”... Their multitude of people has gone to 2000 people... Dec 23, 2023 at 5:48
  • 13, used “metalinguistically,” is in the noun category. Dec 23, 2023 at 15:25

In the example CGEL give to illustrate the nounal usage, few would substitute numerals except perhaps in very informal contexts, say in notemaking. Though 'a few hundred' does not lend itself to numeralisation, the use of 2 000 and the obvious parallel

  • ... the hostiles' numbers have gone from about 300 to well over 2,000 in one day

argues for non-nounal usage, in spite of the presence of 'numbers'.

On the other hand,

  • ... the hostiles' numbers have gone from the low hundreds to the low thousands in one day

argues for nounness.

This seems a hybrid usage; 'fused determiner head' seems a reasonable term.

  • In your first example, are you saying that 300 and 2,000 are 'fused determiner heads'? If so, what's the common noun that has been fused with 300 and 2,000? Hostiles, numbers, or something else?
    – JK2
    Dec 13, 2023 at 20:09
  • Wikipedia describes the usage: << Determiners may bear two functions at one time. Usually this is a fusion of determinative and head in an NP where no head noun exists. >> Dec 13, 2023 at 22:48
  • Your wiki quote is taken from CGEL. And the subsequent sentence in the quote is "In the clause many would disagree, the determiner many is the fused determinative-head in the NP that functions as the subject." In this example, many is a fusion of a determiner many and a head noun people. Then, in your example what head nouns are the determiners 300 and 2,000 fused with?
    – JK2
    Dec 14, 2023 at 1:14
  • 1
    @JK2 Fused determiner-heads don't contain some sort of invisible noun that's been "fused" with the determiner. Instead, the constituent acting as the determiner is also acting as the head of the NP; it's called "fused" because these two functions, normally separate, are being fulfilled by the same element.
    – alphabet
    Dec 14, 2023 at 6:45
  • (And while it is true that you can often replace a fused determiner-head with that same determiner + a head noun, that doesn't imply anything about the syntactic structure of the fused determiner-head itself.)
    – alphabet
    Dec 14, 2023 at 6:49

Now, these orbital images tell me that the hostiles' numbers have gone from a few hundred to well over 2,000 in one day. <Avatar (2009)>

This gives us:

Now, these orbital images tell me that the hostiles' numbers have gone from a few hundred hostiles (in a day) to well over 2,000 hostiles in one day. <Avatar (2009)>

It seems from this that "hostiles" is being used as a common noun derived from the substantive - and not a very natural one. (I have no qualifications in Avatarese.)

Let's take a more orthodox example:

Now, these orbital images tell me that the deaf**'s** numbers have gone from a few hundred deaf (in a day) to well over 2,000 deaf in one day.

We can parallel this with

Now, these orbital images tell me that the enemy's numbers have gone from a few hundred enemy (in a day) to well over 2,000 enemy in one day.

If you consider "hundred" to be an adjective - and adjectives are not inflected - then all that has happened is that "deaf people/hostiles" has been omitted a couple of times - as is normal in informal speech.

  • 1
    The classification of numerals (spelled out or symbols) as adjectives is in many's opinion untenable. There are even good reasons not to class numerals as quantifiers, to which they are much more closely related (both describe the relation of the noun's referent to the environment rather than give inherent details about the referent). Dec 13, 2023 at 22:57

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