82

Do we say "-1 thing" or "-1 things"?

I am interested in both

two things minus one thing(s)

and

minus/negative one thing(s)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 10 '18 at 18:11
11
+100

A few elements of response:

  1. authority: as mentioned by Cawas, there is not ultimate authority on the English language, and while there are a number of references, I have not been able to identify a solid consensus on the subject.

  2. Usage: It is fairly difficult to check this due to the possible misunderstanding between "(minus one) thing" and "minus (one thing)", assuming that these are two separate cases, an assumption I would tend to disagree with. However, searching for "minus one dollar" -infinity on Google returns 254,000 results while "minus one dollars" -infinity returns only 7 results. The difference is significant enough to consider that regardless of any possible confusion as suggested above, minus one should be followed by the singular, at least in this case. ("-infinity" is added to the search phrase to exclude the expression "infinity minus one dollar"). "minus three dollars" is significantly more common than "minus three dollar", suggesting that "minus" itself does not affect the rules of the plural/singular following numbers.

  3. Logic: "minus one" is not an actual quantity in the physical universe. "Minus one" is only an abstraction which refers to the action of subtracting one of anything. Rather that saying "whenever you have apples, remove one apple" we say "minus one apple". It follows that "(minus one) thing" and "minus (one thing)" are actually equivalent.

Barring incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, I would say that it is safe to use the singular following "minus one".

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 10 '18 at 18:11
42

As I said in answer to another question (about "0.25 mile" v/s "0.25 miles"), my preference is to use the singular only for the natural number 1: when you are counting something and the count is 1.

That is, if "minus" is conceivably an operator, as in "the band reunited, minus one member", you would use the singular. (The "one" there is a count of how many members were missing, so it takes the singular.)
But if "-1" is just a numerical value, then (to me) the plural is preferable, as in "It was a cold day in winter, and the temperature was -1 degrees Celsius". This is similar to the usage "0.1 grams", IMHO. (Though what I'd actually write is "-1 °C", side-stepping the issue.)

(Searching Google for "minus one degrees" gives this article and this one, but make of them what you will.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 10 '18 at 18:10
27

Neil Whitfield gives an answer on his ESL blog here. It depends on whether the quantity is countable or not.

[C]ountable nouns form plurals; mass/uncountable nouns don’t. This gets a little more complicated because some nouns may be either countable or mass/uncountable, depending on how they are being used. “Wheat” for example may be both: ten kilos of wheat is uncountable; several types of wheat is also uncountable; there are several wheats used in this mix is countable.

OK, with countable nouns: I would say 0.1 apples for grammatical reasons, though I agree it is not logical! I guess you could say 0.1 of an apple just as you say one-tenth of an apple If the number one is used, whether it is +/-1, the following noun will be singular. So it would be -1 apple. We’re talking grammar, not logic; and yes we say zero apples, probably because zero is thought of as a number that is not one, even though zero is neither singular nor plural logically.

So it looks like grammatically (perhaps not mathematically) the following

  • 0.3 = point-three apples (uncountable)
  • 1/3 = one third of an apple (countable one in fraction)
  • 2/3 = two thirds of an apple (countable more than one third)
  • 0 = zero apples, no apples (uncountable)
  • 1 = one apple (countable)
  • 3 = three apples (countable)

However (caveat, I'm not a grammar professional),

  • -1 = negative one apples (uncountable, you can't have negative of something real, like money. This is a mathematical concept only, hence plural would be OK.) This feels like negative-one apples
  • -1 = minus one apple (countable. "After they broke into his house, he was left with minus one apple." The number of apples stolen is countable.) This feels like minus one-apple

I hope that clarifies it a bit more. They're both appropriate in different circumstances. Hooray for English! #sarcasm


I'll add just a bit more. If the word one can be replaced by an article (a/an/the) then you should use the singular.

  • The temperature is minus one degree Celsius.
  • The temperature is minus a degree Celsius.

However, the following is kind of awkward:

  • Ten subtracted from nine is negative one degrees Celsius.
  • Ten subtracted from nine is negative a degree Celsius.

So you should probably use the plural.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 10 '18 at 18:08
23

The only number that is singular is one. All other numbers are plural, including negative one. 1.0001 is plural. 0.99999 is plural. 0 is plural. -1 is plural. Only 1 is singular. The nature of singularity is being single, unitary, unique, isn't it? Everything else is plural.

However, in many cases the string of words "minus one" does not denote a negative number. Rather it denotes a relation with the preposition minus and a singular item. In the questioner's examples, "two things minus one thing" is grammatical because here the quantity is not "minus one thing" it's the quantity "two things" (plural) joined by the preposition minus with "one thing" (singular).

In the case of the number "minus one" or "negative one", it is plural, because here we have the adjective minus rather than the preposition. "The temperature is minus one degrees". "The bank made an error and deposited negative one dollars into the account".

  • You might be right, but I don't agree that your singularity argument very clearly applies to -1. I think this is reading too much into the word "singular". – marcog Jan 24 '11 at 18:37
  • 1
    while I agree, one-tenth of an apple is a singular tenth of the apple. It depends a lot on context, because point-one apples is also appropriate since there isn't a singular there. – Stephen Furlani Jan 24 '11 at 21:01
  • 5
    yes "one tenth of an apple" is one (singular) "tenth of an apple". The tenth of an apple is singular as you would expect because there is exactly one of them. "0.1 apples" is plural because there is "zero point one"—which is not singular—of them. – nohat Jan 24 '11 at 22:18
  • 2
    @gnasher729 I would say "one point zero zero meters" – nohat May 11 '14 at 7:31
  • 1
    ...is to write sentences which will be properly understood; I view grammar as being a tool which is often effective in achieving understanding, but like many tools it's not always perfect. I find it amazing the way people developed a relatively consistent sense of how words should fit together long before there were written rules to describe it. – supercat Jan 24 '15 at 16:24
4

I've done some research and I can't see why you haven't accepted one of the two top answers so far.

It seems there is no authority in the English language, which is a good thing. Even if there was something, do you prefer Oxford or Wikipedia? With that, I like to think of English as an adaptive language in which we are obligated to think and judge its rules for ourselves through observation and logic.

And in this case, as people already said:

-1 can be singular like in "minus 1 thing" or plural as in "negative 1 things".

It's (minus) one of those things that only makes sense when you have some background knowledge and speak it out loud.

2

Singular.

In the case of subtracting things, the minus is not part of the count itself, you are subtracting one positive count from another positive count:

Four cars minus one car is three cars.

When not counting things, so that you can actually have a negative value, it's still singular:

The temperature was minus one degree.

  • 2
    Why the downvote? If you don't explain what you think is wrong, it can't improve the answer. – Guffa Jan 24 '11 at 15:17
  • If minus one is a number in the first example, then you could also say Four cars three cars is seven cars. But you can't, so it isn't. The second example simply sounds wrong to my ear, because the singular degree implies that one binds to degree more strongly than it does to minus. But the unary minus certainly shouldn't have lower precedence than the binary minus, and it sounds fine to say I have three minus two cars, while I don't think anyone would say I have three cars minus two cars. (I wasn't the downvote.) – Matt Nov 21 '11 at 19:46
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    @Matt: I don't get your point. I said that "the minus is not part of the count itself", so minus one is not a number in the first example. Why do you think that anyone would not say I have three cars minus two cars? – Guffa Nov 21 '11 at 23:34
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    For the meaning you say, I agree with you. However, you are using this to back up your answer to the original question. The original question was about "-1 things" (with that spacing) and I don't think anyone would write "4 cars -1 cars is 3 cars" to indicate subtraction, so I don't think this meaning applies to the original question. Also the title of this question is "Is -1 singular or plural?" and again this is about a number, -1, not about subtraction. So I suppose I simply misunderstood your first example, because I thought it was intended to answer the question. – Matt Nov 23 '11 at 20:33
0

Always singular. Minus one point. Minus one day. Minus one dollar. No exceptions.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 10 '18 at 18:10
-2

Thing. One is singular by definition:

'I have a full train set, minus one carriage'.

  • 2
    The "-" is for "minus". More real-world examples: "-1 point(s)", "-1 day(s)", "-1 dollar(s)", "-1 percent(s)". – marcog Jan 24 '11 at 10:19
  • I thought so. My answer stands in any case. 1 is singular whether it's minus or not. – user3444 Jan 24 '11 at 10:31
  • Your example subtracts one carriage from a full train set, and so indeed it uses the number one as you say. But the question (as I read it) is about the number minus one. As in, "I have a full train set, plus minus one carriages." And for this case, where minus one is definitely being used as a single number, only the plural is even remotely correct (to my ear). – Matt Nov 21 '11 at 20:23

protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 18:55

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