Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 26

Kibort, Anna, G. Corbett, Greville (25 January 2008) Number.

Grammatical Features [Online]

Available from: http://www.grammaticalfeatures.net/features/number.html (Accessed on 21 st
July, 2017)

Anna Kibort & Greville G. Corbett

1. What is 'number'
2. Expressions of 'number'
3. The status of 'number' as a feature
4. The values of 'number'
5. Oddly behaving number markers
6. Problem cases
7. Key literature

1. What is 'number'

'Number' is a grammatical category which encodes quantification over entities or events

denoted by nouns or nominal elements. It derives from the ability to perceive something as a
token, an instance of a class of referents, and the ability to differentiate between one and more
than one (i.e. the 'plurality' of) instances of the referent. Since number can refer to entities or
events, it has been suggested that in language we find both nominal number and verbal
number, the latter phenomenon also being referred to as 'pluractionality'. However, on the
alternative view, pluractionality is regarded as an expression of situaton type (see the entry on
'Aspect'), not number. The present entry will focus on nominal number.

In a language where nominal number is found, number-differentiability may not apply to all
nouns. Traditionally, two types of noun are distinguished: 'count nouns' like the English cat, and
'mass nouns' like the English water. The count-mass distinction can be drawn from
morphology - for example English count nouns usually have a singular and a plural form, while
mass nouns are traditionally regarded as lacking the number distinction and having only the
singular form (singularia tantum such as air) or only the plural form (pluralia tantum such
as measles). This shows that for some nouns number may be lexically determined.

At the level of syntax, the count-mass distinction is drawn on the basis of the type of nominal
phrase. In English, a very substantial proportion of nouns can be used both as count nouns and
as mass nouns, and appear with the appropriate determiners, articles and quantifiers: Would
you like a cake/some cake?, How many apples/How much apple have you had?, How many
beers/How much beer have you had?, We need a new car / With a Lada you get a lot of car for
your money(Cruse 1994:2860), We need a bigger table / There is not enough table for everyone
to sit at (Allan 1980:547), Small farmers in Kenya grow corn rather than wheat / Triticum
aestivum ssp. vulgare is a wheat suitable for high altitudes (Allan 1980:547). This ability of
nouns to appear in either syntactic context is referred to as recategorisation (for a brief
account of other terms see Corbett 2000:81). In his paper on the count-mass distinction in
syntax, Allan (1980) claims that the traditional view labelling nouns as count or mass in the
lexicon in inadequate, as the distinction relates to nominal phrases rather than to nouns. At the
level of the lexicon, nouns show a countability preference, but countability is really a
characteristic of nominal phrases. When both levels of analysis are taken into consideration,
eight different classes of nouns can be distinguished in English, with the following examples
running from the 'most count' to the 'least count' (Allan 1980:562): car, oak, cattle, scissors,
mankind, admiration, equipment, Himalayas. Thus, 'count' and 'mass' are syntactic categories,
and the meaning of a noun occurrence is a function of both its lexical meaning and the syntactic
context in which it appears (Krifka 1994:2394).

At the level of semantics, Jackendoff's (1991) approach to the count-mass distinction captures a
lot of the insights of the substantial literature on this subject (for references see Corbett
2000:78-82). He uses two semantic features, 'boundedness' and 'internal structure', to
distinguish count from mass, while drawing a parallel between mass and bare plurals (both are
treated as 'unbounded'), as well as between groups and bare plurals (both have 'internal
structure', unlike substances which are made up of parts of themselves and unlike individuals
which are treated as atomic). In this way, Jackendoff brings out the special position
of committee-type nouns, and also points to the parallel analysis in verbal semantics of
temporally bounded and temporally unbounded events. Corbett (2000:80) summarises
Jackendoff's analysis in the following table of the semantic categories of the noun phrase:

Feature values Category Examples

+bounded, -internal structure individuals a book, a pig

+bounded, +internal structure groups a committee

-bounded, -internal structure substances water

-bounded, +internal structure aggregates books, pigs

Languages vary in how they classify their nouns with respect to the 'boundedness' and 'internal
structure' of their referents, which reflects conceptual differences. For example, for most
speakers of English a pea is large enough a component part of the substance peas to be
considered an individual, but for speakers of Russian it isn't (cf. gorox 'peas' which does not
distinguish singular and plural; Corbett 2000:80). In Arabic, the noun shajar 'tree' is a 'mass'
noun denoting substance, i.e. an undifferentiated mass of 'tree-ness' (usually labelled a
'collective' in Arabic grammars). It is possible to express the meaning of an individual tree by
adding an individuative suffix (shajar-a), and both the substance and the individual can be
pluralised, (ashjār and shajarāt, respectively), the former denoting the plurality of tree-types
(with a distributive interpretation), and the latter the plurality of tree-individuals (Cruse
1994:2858). For recent work on the compositionality of number and the morphosemantics of
transnumeral nouns, from a typological perspective, see e.g. Acquaviva (2004; and

Jump to top of page/ top of section

2. Expressions of 'number'
Nominal number can be found expressed on the noun/nominal element, on or in the noun
phrase, or on the verb. When it is found on the noun/nominal element or the noun phrase as
such, it can be thought of as 'inherent', and when it is found on other elements of the noun
phrase or the clause, for example as a result of agreement with the noun, it can be thought of as
'contextual' (for a discussion of inherent versus contextual features see Corbett 2006a:123-124;
Anderson 1982; Booij 1994, 1996; and the 'Feature Inventory' page). In both types of loci, the
actual expressions of number can involve: special number words (whose syntactic status may
vary considerably depending on the language), syntactic means (i.e. agreement, found most
commonly on demonstratives and verbs, but also on articles, adjectives, pronouns, nouns
especially in possessive constructions, adverbs, adpositions, and complementisers), a variety of
morphological means (inflections, various types of stem change, zero expressions, clitics), and
lexical means (such as suppletion, or - if occurring within one language - a wide variety of
number expressions which means that the number-marked forms of nouns must be
remembered by the speaker rather than derived from a single underlying representation).
Furthermore, number is often marked in more than one way within one language. It may be
marked by two different means, for example by morphological means and by syntactic means
(this is very common), or by morphological means and by a number word (as in Dogon, a group
of ten related Voltaic languages within Niger-Congo, spoken in Mali), or very commonly by two
or more morphological means (e.g. a stem change together with inflection). Some languages
use several means of marking number on a single item - in Seri (a Hokan language spoken in
Mexico) and Chontal (a Mayan language of Mexico) some nouns show four means of marking
number at once (Turner 1976). See Corbett (2000:133-177) for detailed discussion of all the
expressions of number, and Dryer (2005:138-141) for a discussion of six different ways of
indicating plurality morphologically on the noun, and their distribution among the world's
languages, based on a sample of 957 languages.

Looking at the nominal phrase, it is common for number marking to appear on the head noun,
e.g. English cat ∼ cats, French cheval 'horse' ∼ chevaux 'horses'. The locus of number
information can also be the determiner, as in the (spoken) French le livre (|lə livr|) 'book' ∼ les
livres (|le livr|) 'books'; in English, in addition to number marking on nouns, certain determiners
also have different forms depending on the number of their head noun: this cat ∼ these cats. An
example of another agreeing element within the noun phrase is the adjective, as in
the Russian staraja kniga 'old book' ∼ staryje knigi 'old books'. The number marker may also be
attached to the nominal phrase as such, rather than to one specific constituent, as
in Farsi (Persian), where it is attached to the final element in the noun phrase: ketāb 'the book'
∼ ketāb-hā 'the books', ketāb-e bozorg 'the large book' ∼ ketāb-e bozorg-hā 'the large books'
(Cruse 1994:2859).

It is also possible, although relatively uncommon, for nominal number to be marked exclusively
on the verb. This is the case in Meriam (or, Miriam, a language of the Trans-Fly family, spoken
in Eastern Torres Strait Islands, Australia), where the verb encodes the number of its subject (a
four-way distinction between singular, dual, paucal, or plural) and its object (singular or plural
only), so e.g. irmile means 'one follows one', irmirdare 'a few follow one', and dirmiriei 'two follow
many', etc. (Cruse 1994:2859, Corbett 2000:23, data from Piper 1989). In Amele (a Trans-New
Guinea language spoken in Papua New Guinea) nominal number must be indicated on the verb
and may optionally be indicated on the noun or by pronominal copy, but this marking is
restricted to kinship terms (Corbett 2000:137, after Roberts 1987:162, 201, 203; Haspelmath
2005:142, after Roberts 1987:171). In Arafundi (a Sepik-Ramu language spoken in Papua New
Guinea), the speakers do not seem to opt for marking number on the noun at all, though it is
marked on the pronoun. However, the main locus of number marking in Arafundi is the verb
(Corbett 2000:137, after Nichols 1992:148-149 and personal communication with William

Among the different expressions of nominal number, three less common systems have been
found. One has been referred to as inverse number, where the number marker changes the
basic number meaning of the stem to which it is attached, in either direction, indicating the less
expected number. This has been observed in Kiowa (or, Kiowa Apache,
Athapaskan), Maasai (Nilotic), and several Oceanic languages. Inverse number expressed
through agreement may lead to the phenomenon of polarity, which occurs when two markers
are exponents of two features (gender and number). When the value of one feature is changed
the marker changes, but if both values are changed the form stays the same, resulting in the
polar opposites being identical. This is the case for some nouns in Somali(Cushitic). For details
of these phenomena and references, see Corbett (2000:159-166). The second type of a less
common number marking system has been referred to as minimal-augmented system (and
another variant: minimal/ unit-augmented/ augmented system). This happens when a marker
does not express number in an absolute sense, but when it expresses relative number, as is the
case in several Australian languages. For example, in Rembarrnga the marker -bbarrah is used
when there is one entity more than the logical minimum. This relative view of number only
makes a difference in the expression of pronominal forms, and so it represents a different
organisation of the morphology of person and number, not an alternative set of semantic
distinctions for number (see Corbett 2000:166-169 and references therein). Finally, the third
less common means of number expression has been referred to as constructed numbers.
These occur where there is a mismatch between number marking of different elements which
produces additional number values, for example the combination of a plural pronoun and
singular verb gives a dual interpretation. Such a dual is 'constructed' from the number on the
pronoun and the number on the verb, and the three-value number system (singular, dual, plural)
is 'constructed' from the two parts. This is the case in Hopi (Uto-Aztecan), where the pronoun
distinguishes singular from dual/plural and the verb distinguishes singular/dual from plural, but
where animate nouns have a straightforward three-way distinction, indicated by three distinct
markers. For other examples and references see Corbett (2000:169-171).

Apart from using different methods of expressing number, languages vary with regard to which
of the number-differentiable nominals are involved in the number system. In English and similar
languages, the majority of nominals mark number, from the personal pronouns and nouns
denoting humans (e.g. teachers), through nouns denoting animates (e.g. pigs), nouns denoting
inanimate objects (e.g. books), to some nouns denoting abstract entities (e.g. weeks). However,
many languages restrict the expression of number to only a subset of their nominals. It has
been observed that the sets of nominals involved in number distinctions in different languages
relate to the animacy hierarchy. Smith-Stark (1974) proposed the first version of the animacy
hierarchy relevant to number marking, having considered the marking of nominal phrases for
plural number and agreement in plural number (mainly verbal agreement, but with some
instances of agreement within the noun phrase). The following, updated version of the hierarchy
is essentially Smith-Stark's, with the additional distinction of the third person pronouns:

Speaker > Addressee > > Kin > Rational > Human > Animate > Inanimate

(1st- (2nd-
person person
pronouns) pronouns)

Thus, if plurality is a significant opposition for some nominals but irrelevant for others, it 'splits'
the language at some point of the animacy hierarchy (Smith-Stark 1974:657). For example,
in Bengali the split is between pronouns and nouns: number is obligatory for pronouns, while
other plural suffixes are optional (Masica 1991:225-226, cited in Corbett 2006b:726).
Similarly, Quechua (a language of Peru) and Korean mark number only in the pronoun system
(Cruse 1994:2859). In Bininj Gun-Wok (a large group of related dialects spoken in Western
Arnhem Land, Australia), pronominal affixes on the verb mark number for humans but not
normally for nonhumans (Evans 2003:234-235, 417-418, cited in Corbett 2006b:726).
In Warrgamay (Australian, spoken in Queensland), number is not marked on the verb. Number
marking of nominals is obligatory only in pronouns referring to humans (and occasionally tame
dogs). First and second person pronouns can only refer to humans and have to be specified for
number (singular, dual, or plural). The third person pronoun's dual and plural forms are also
reserved for humans, and the number is expressed obligatorily. The form used as the third
person singular pronoun is unmarked for number and can refer to all persons and all numbers,
humans an non-humans (Dixon 1980:266-268, Dixon 1981:39-40, cited in Corbett 2006b:725).
In Mundari (Afro-Asiatic, spoken in east India), verbs agree in number with all nominals on the
hierarchy down to animates, but not with inanimates (Bhattacharya 1976:191-192, cited in
Corbett 2006b:726). More examples of languages chosing different points on the hierarchy for
the number-marking split can be found in Corbett (2000:54-66). Haspelmath (2005:142-145)
provides information on the occurrence and obligatoriness of plural marking on nouns in 290
languages, all in accord with the animacy hierarchy. He suggests a possible further distinction
within animates between 'higher' and 'lower' animals, in those languages where nouns referring
to some animals pattern with humans and others with inanimates. Alternatively, this pattern of
marking could be seen as extending 'personal' status to some, usually domesticated, animals.
Finally, Haspelmath's suggestion of a possible further division within the category of 'Inanimate',
into 'Discrete inanimates' and 'Nondiscrete inanimates', can be seen as corresponding to the
'count-mass' distinction discussed above in §1 which is responsible for the number
differentiability of nouns in the first place.

The animacy hierarchy makes several correct predictions about number marking. The first one,
discussed so far in this section, has been formulated as a constraint by Corbett (2000:56): 'The
singular-plural distinction in a given language must affect a top segment of the animacy
hierarchy'. Indeed, so far no languages have been found where number distinction would be
relevant for a non-top segment of the animacy hierarchy, or where it would be additionally
relevant for another segment of the hierarchy non-adjacent to the top segment. The second
prediction concerns the relation of number marking on nouns and number agreement to the
animacy hierarchy: 'Lexical items may be irregular in terms of number marking with respect to
the animacy hierarchy and regular in terms of agreement, but not vice versa' (Corbett 2000:67).
This means that syntactic tests (i.e. agreement) are found to match the hierarchy as well as or
better than the morphological test (i.e. a marker, typically on the noun itself). Thus, the English
noun sheep is not a counter-example to the hierarchy, since the agreement it triggers is regular
(this sheep has..., these sheep have...). Furthermore, moving rightwards along the hierarchy,
the different positions give increasingly regular results. The third prediction, formulated as a
general constraint of the animacy hierarchy on number differentiation, is the following (Corbett
2000:70): 'As we move rightwards along the animacy hierarchy, the likelihood of number being
distinguished will decrease monotonically (that is, with no intervening increase)'. This prediction
is borne out in two different situations. First, it is true of languages where there is a sharp cut-off
point between cases where number must be distinguished and those where it cannot; and
second, it is true of languages where the difference is a matter of optional marking as opposed
to no marking. So far, no languages have been found where number is optionally distinguished
at a high point of the hierarchy and obligatorily distinguished at a lower point of the hierarchy
(for the same type of marking). For detailed discussion of all the morphological effects of the
animacy hierarchy, and examples, see Corbett (2000:54-78).

The animacy hierarchy also helps explain recategorisation effects (the ability of the noun to
appear in either a 'count' or a 'mass' syntactic context, see §1). Generally, the lower the position
on the hierarchy, the more readily available are recategorisation readings (since the 'normal'
singular-plural opposition is typically not required). This means that recategorisation is the
easiest with inanimates, and as we move up the hierarchy, it becomes progressively more
difficult, requiring more and more special circumstances. This is true both of the recategorisation
from mass to count (two coffees please, she offered three wonderful wines during dinner, small
kindnesses), and of the recategorisation from count to mass (there was not enough table for
everyone to sit at, there was dog all over the road) (Corbett 2000:78-87).

The committee-type nouns (i.e. the semantic category of nominal phrases referred to as 'groups'
in §1) are singular morphologically and typically have a normal plural. However, when singular,
they may take plural agreement (as in British English: the committee have decided). The fact
that there is choice of agreement and a possible mismatch between the number marking on the
noun and the marking on the verb (agreement) is due to the semantics of the noun. The pattern
of agreement conforms to the agreement hierarchy (attributive < predicate < relative pronoun
< personal pronoun): 'For any controller that permits alternative agreement forms, as we move
rightwards along the agreement hierarchy, the likelihood of agreement with greater semantic
justification will increase monotonically (that is, with no intervening decrease) (Corbett
2006a:207). For discussion of 'group' nouns in English and examples from other languages see
Corbett (2000:187-191; 2006a:158-165, 206-237; 2006b:728-729).

Finally, there are also instances of the so-called verbal number (or, 'pluractionality') which relate
to the semantics of the verb, and which occur when a concept akin to number is expressed by
the verb to indicate (a difference in) the number of events or the number of participants. An
example of event number can be found inRapa Nui (Oceanic, spoken on Easter
Island): ruku means 'dive', while ruku ruku 'go diving' expresses more than one dive, though not
necessarily more than one diver, so it is the event which is 'plural'. An example of verbal number
relating to the number of participants is found in Hiuchol (Uto-Aztecan, spoken in west-central
Mexico), where a transitive verb has pronominal affixes according to subject and object, and the
stem of the verb (typically glossed as 'singular' or 'plural') depends on participant number, that
of the object of the transitive verb (the absolutive argument). Both event number and participant
number have recently been reported for Itonama (a nearly extinct language isolate spoken in
lowland Amazonian Bolivia), which is the first attested case of verbal number in South America
(Crevels 2006). Verbal number of the participant type depends on the entity most directly
affected by the event, and it may contrast with the nominal number marking on the verb. So far,
no examples have been found of verbal number being expressed other than on the verb. Verbal
number is usually restricted to relatively small numbers of verbs, and the most common means
of its expression are the use of separate verbs (similar in meaning to the
English kill versus exterminate), stem modification (usually reduplication or gemination), and
derivational morphology. For details and references, see Corbett (2000:243-264), also Newman

Jump to top of page/ top of section

3. The status of 'number' as a feature

In order for a language to be considered to have the grammatical feature of number, it has to be
possible for number to be recognised in the absence of numerals or other quantifiers. Therefore,
the number system should not be confused with the numeral system in a language.

We will now consider nominal number. It is a morphosyntactic feature if it participates in

agreement in the language, regardless of whether it is expressed on the controller (the
noun/nominal element, or the noun phrase as such) or not. If number is expressed on the
noun/nominal element or the noun phrase, but is not found affecting other elements of the
clause, it is normally regarded a morphosemantic feature in the language.

Nominal number is inherent to nouns, and contextual to all other elements in the clause which
express number due to agreement. On some nouns, number is lexically supplied - this is the
case with nouns which have one lexically determined number value that they impose on the
agreeing elements (e.g. English health, trousers). In other cases, where the nouns of a given
language can be associated with different number values available in this language, number is
semantically selected. In such languages, number (both inherent and contextual) is typically
regarded as an inflectional feature if it is obligatory. However, in number systems with general
number (see §4), number can be seen as derivational (Corbett 1999). Alternatively, all inherent
number (i.e. number marked on nouns themselves, and on the nominal phrases as such) could
be regarded as derivational, while all contextual number (i.e. number marked on other elements
of the clause, through agreement) - as inflectional.

In those cases where verbal number is derivational (Corbett 1999:3, Durie 1986; Mithun 1988a,
1988b), and where two values can be distinguished, it is an inherent feature of the verb and
may be regarded a morphosemantic feature. It is not a morphosyntactic feature, as no
agreement effects of verbal number have yet been found.

One contemporary language has been reported not to have the category of number at all. It
is Pirahã (the only remaining member of the Mura family; spoken along the Maici River in
Amazonas, Brazil), which does not appear to have any plural forms, even in the pronouns. The
ways of expressing the notion of plurality are by conjoining, the associative/comitative
postposition, and various quantifiers. But there does not seem to be a grammatical feature of
number (Corbett 2000:50-51, after Everett 1986, 1997). A similar situation has been reported for
two ancient languages: Kawi (Old Javanese), and Classical Chinese.

Jump to top of page/ top of section

4. The values of 'number'

In order for a language to be considered to have a value of grammatical number, it has to be

possible for that value to be recognised, either on nominal elements or through agreement, in
the absence of a numeral or other quantifier. The following number values have been found
(based on Corbett 2000; with thanks to Dunstan Brown for discussion of the definitions):
 Singular - quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there is exactly
'one'. Additionally, but not necessarily, this value may be assigned on the basis of the formal
properties of the nominal element (as in singularia tantum, e.g. health/*healths). Furthermore,
if singular number functions as general number (see below), it may specify a lack of
commitment with regard to quantification (e.g. in Japanese, see Corbett 2000:14, citing
Bernard Comrie personal communication). The term 'singulative' is sometimes used for the
concept 'singular', especially when the singular is overtly expressed; 'singulative' has also
been used sometimes for 'singular' in systems where the singular is distinct from general
 Plural - quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there are 'more
than one'. Additionally, but not necessarily, this value may be assigned on the basis of the
formal properties of the nominal element (as in pluralia tantum, e.g. *measle/measles).
Furthermore, if plural number functions as general number (see below), it may specify a lack
of commitment with regard to quantification. Corbett (2000:17) notes, however, that this
system does not exist in pure form, that is, no language employs it as the normal case. For
example, in Cushitic languages, general number can be the same as singular number for
some nouns, but the same as plural number for other nouns (e.g. in Arbore, a Cushitic
language spoken in Ethiopia, general number may contrast with the singular in the absence
of a distinct plural form; see Corbett 2000:17-18 for examples and discussion). Finally, it is
important to note that the meaning of plural number naturally varies according to the system
in which it is embedded. That is, the term is used irrespective of whether a dual, trial or
paucal is also present in the number system, and no terminological distinction is made to
differentiate 'more than one', 'more than two', or 'more than three'. However, in languages
which have a paucal, the number value expressing 'many entities', i.e. the concept 'plural', is
sometimes called a 'multiple' (as has been the case e.g. in Fijian).
 Greater plural - this value is only found in languages which also have the value 'plural'
(e.g. Arabic), hence it may be considered a further distinction within the plural. Greater plural
expresses the fact that there is an excessive number of entities or events denoted by the
nominal element (in which case it is sometimes called the 'plural of abundance'), or the fact or
that the nominal element denotes all possible instances of the referent (in which case it is
sometimes called the 'global plural').
 Dual - quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there are exactly
'two' (as in Upper Sorbian, see Corbett 2000:20 for examples and discussion). Additionally,
but not necessarily, this value may be assigned on the basis of the formal properties of the
nominal element (as in dualia tantum, e.g. mangautek 'scissors' in the Yukon dialect
of Central Alaskan Yupik; Jacobson 1984:226). The use of the dial varies across languages
which have this value. In some languages, dual may be used to refer to any two entities, but
in others it must refer to a natural pair such as eyes, and still in others it must refer to two
items unless they are a natural pair (Corbett 2000).
 Trial - quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there are exactly
'three' (e.g. Larike, see Corbett 2000:21 for examples and discussion).
 Paucal - quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there is a 'small
number' of distinct entities (i.e. the semantics of the paucal is similar to that of the English
quantifier 'a few'). There is no specific upper bound in terms of numerosity that can be put on
the use of the paucal, while its lower bound depends on whether there is a dual and trial in
the system. In languages which make a further distinction within this category, the values
have been referred to as 'paucal' and 'greater paucal'. Note also that what some linguistic
traditions might call a 'quadral', is better analysed as paucal or greater paucal (see a brief
discussion of quadrals in §6 below, 'Problem cases').
 Greater paucal - this value is only found in languages which also have the value 'paucal'
(e.g. Sursurunga), hence it may be considered a further distinction within the paucal. The
greater paucal quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that there is a
'small number' of distinct entities, greater than that expressed by the paucal, but smaller than
that expressed by the plural (i.e. the semantics of the greater paucal is similar to that of the
English quantifier 'several'). Note also that what some linguistic traditions might call a
'quadral', is better analysed as paucal or greater paucal (see also a discussion of quadrals in
§6 below, 'Problem cases').
 General number - specifies a lack of commitment with regard to quantification over the
denotation of nominal elements (Corbett 2000:9-19). There is a theoretical issue whether
general number is a value of the number feature, or whether it is outside the number system
and specifies that the number feature is not realised (i.e. the whole category of number is
optional in such languages). On Corbett's (2000) analysis, since in many languages the
absence of plural marking does not necessarily imply the singular, the form for 'general
number' may express the meaning of the noun without reference to number (as in Cushitic)
and may therefore be outside the number system. In some languages (e.g. Baiso, Cushitic),
the general number may have a unique form. However, separate coding for general number
is very rare, as it is normally realised by one of the other feature values (usually the singular).

The minimal number system consists of two values: singular and plural. All other number
systems are built on this primary opposition.

A common system is one in which these two values are supplemented by a dual - for example,
in Upper Sorbian (West Slavonic) or Central Yupik (spoken in Alaska). It is important to note
that the addition of any other value to the system has an effect on the plural - it gives the plural
a different meaning. Thus, if the system is singular-dual-plural, the plural is used to express
'three or more'. Furthermore, the use of a dual may be non-obligatory or subject to restrictions.
For example, the dual in Kxoe (Central Khoisan, spoken in Namibia), when used with reference
to a man and his wife, is an insult as it implies that they are together by chance; instead, the
plural is used in this situation.

The trial occurs in systems with the number values: singular, dual, trial, plural - for example,
in Larike (Malayo-Polynesian, spoken in Indonesia), Ngan'gityemerri(a dialect of
Nangikurrunggur, Australian) and some other Australian languages. The dual and trial forms in
Austronesian can frequently be traced back to the numerals 'two' and 'three', and the plural to
the numeral 'four'. However, in many of those languages the connections are only diachronic,
and the 'trial' form synchronically has the function of a paucal. However, in Larike it is strictly a

The paucal has been found in the following systems: singular, paucal, plural - though such
systems are rare, one has been found in Baiso (Cushitic, spoken in Ethiopia); singular, dual,
paucal, plural - this widespread system is found, for example, in Fijian and many other Oceanic
languages, in some Australian languages, in Yimas (Sepik-Ramu, Papua New
Guinea), Murik (Malayo-Polynesian), and Meriam (or, Miriam, Trans-Fly family, spoken in
Eastern Torres Strait Islands, Australia) mentioned earlier in §2; singular, dual, trial, paucal,
plural - this system is found in Lihir (Oceanic, spoken in Papua New Guinea), although the
status of the trial in this language is uncertain; if it is not a strict trial, then the system may be the
following: singular, dual, paucal, greater paucal, plural; this system is also found
in Sursurunga and Tangga (both Oceanic, Papua New Guinea), and Marshallese (also
Oceanic, spoken on Marshall Islands) (see §6 'Problem cases' below for a discussion of the
question of the quadrals). The five-value systems listed above are the largest number systems
that have been documented.
In many number systems, certain numbers are facultative - that is, their choice is optional and,
when it is not taken, the plural is used in its place (for detailed discussion of facultative number
see Corbett 2000:42-50).

Finally, in minimal-augmented systems (and minimal/ unit-augmented/ augmented systems),

which have an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the first person, the number values dual and trial
are expressed only on the first person inclusive by using the morphology otherwise associated
with the singular and the dual, respectively (even though the semantics of first person inclusive
entail that it cannot be singular). There is an analysis of this (mentioned in §2 above) in which
the morphology is seen as representing the minimal number associated with the particular
person value. Under such a system, the label 'minimal' can be seen as corresponding to the
concept 'singular', except if one is dealing with first person inclusive minimal, which would be
corresponding to the concept 'dual' (Corbett 2000:166-169). Therefore, it is possible to specify a
mapping from a minimal-augmented system (or a minimal/ unit-augmented/ augmented system)
to a regular number system such as the one outlined above, and avoid postulating additional
number values (again, thanks to Dunstan Brown for discussion of this issue).

Jump to top of page/ top of section

5. Oddly behaving number markers

Korean has a very interesting plural marker, -tul, which may have additional meanings
depending on where it occurs (Corbett 2000:137-138, after Song 1975, and Lee 1991). It may
be found on the noun, where it is not obligatory and its presence depends on definiteness
(definite noun phrases are likely to have the head noun marked for number) and on the animacy
hierarchy (nouns denoting humans and other animates are much more likely to be marked for
number than inanimates). It may also occur in the predicate, where it may appear on almost any
element of the clause (for example, apart from the subject, it may appear on the verb, the
object, the indirect object, and even separately on the modifier or quantifier of the object). The
occurrence of the plural marker in the predicate is not obligatory, but it is not redundant. It
indicates that the constituent to which it is attached expresses new information (Lee 1991:83),
and it imposes a distributive reading (Song 1997), while the lack of the marker means that the
clause is ambiguous with respect to the distributive/collective distinction. For more references of
the literature on this construction and on number in Korean, see Corbett (2000:138).

Other uses of number. The regular expression of number may be taken over for purposes
other than its normal meaning. There are three broad grups of these other uses: honorific uses
(to indicate respect), unexpected uses in the general area of conjoining, and various affective
uses (such as the exaggerative, the intensificative, the approximative, the evasive, and the anti-
associative) (Corbett 2000:219-242).

Jump to top of page/ top of section

6. Problem cases
Interrelation between number and person: the question of the associative. When we
consider the meaning of the pronouns I versus we, it is clear that here we have an associative
use of the plural, as we is most often used for 'I and other(s) associated with me' (Moravcsik
2003, Corbett 2005). In English, the associative use is available only for the items at the very
top of the animacy hierarchy. The associative is best considered a separate category (see
Corbett 2000:101-111; also the entry on 'Associativity' in this Inventory).

Distributives and collectives are sometimes listed as additional values along the same
dimension as singulars and plurals, but the evidence suggests that they should not be
considered additional values comparable with the basic number values, nor subdivisions of
these. Rather, they are different categories, like associatives (Corbett 2000:111-120).

Acehnese (Malayo-Polynesian, spoken on Sumatra, Indonesia) has been suggested as a

language lacking the category of number, but it has number just in the first person (Corbett

No clear case of a quadral has been found (Corbett 2000:26-30), meaning a value of
grammatical number that quantifies the denotation of the nominal element by specifying that
there are exactly 'four'. The quadral has been used in the description of at least three languages
from the Austronesian family. A well-documented suggested case is Sursurunga (Oceanic,
Papua New Guinea; Hutchisson 1986, and personal communications). The forms labelled
quadral are restricted to the personal pronouns, but are found with all of them: the first person
(inclusive and exclusive), the second and the third. However, besides being used of four, the
quadral has two other uses which account for most of its instances. First, plural pronouns are
never used with terms for dyads (kinship pairs like uncle-nephew/niece) and the quadral is then
used instead for a minimum of four, and not just for exactly four. The second additional use is in
hortatory discourse; the speaker may use the first person inclusive quadral, suggesting joint
action including the speaker, even though more than four persons are involved. Thus, if the
values of number are based on meaning, the quadral forms should be considered paucal rather
than quadral.

Similarly, the suggested trial in Sursurunga is also used for small groups, typically around three
or four, and for nuclear families of any size. It is therefore not strictly a trial - rather, it could be
glossed as 'a few' and also qualify as a paucal. The traditional quadral, then, which is frequently
used with larger groups of four or more, and could be glossed as 'several', is in fact a greater
paucal, and the traditional trial is a (normal/lesser) paucal. The plural, as we would expect, is for
numbers of entities larger than are covered by the quadral (though there is no strict dividing line
at any particular number), and the number system of Sursurunga can be represented as:
singular, dual, paucal, greater paucal, and plural.

The other two languages for which the quadral has been claimed can be analysed along the
same lines. Tangga, closely related to Sursurunga, (Capell 1971:260-262; Beaumont 1976:390;
confirmed by Malcolm Ross, personal communication) also has five number forms, and it seems
clear that the forms which have the numeral 'four' as their source are not quadrals but rather
paucals (Malcolm Ross, personal communication citing Maurer 1966; this is also Schmidt's view
given in Capell 1971:261). Unfortunately, we have no information on whether Tangga has a
genuine trial or whether it has two paucals. Marshallese, more distantly related to Sursurunga,
with five number forms for the first, second and third person pronouns (Bender 1969:8-9), also
has an additional use of the quadral form: it is often used rhetorically with groups of more than
four to give an illusion of intimacy (Bender 1969:159). Again, then, this may not be strictly a

Finally, there are several false trails in the literature regarding quadrals - that is, suggestions of
other Austronesian languages with quadrals - which turn out in fact to have four number values
not five. In such cases, the plural may have a form in which the numeral four can be
reconstructed. Thus, we have found no clear case of a quadral, by which we mean a
grammatical form for referring to four distinct entities in the way that trials refer to three.

Can number be a feature of government? As with gender, we have not found instances
of number as a feature of government. And similarly, there are instances of a number value
found on elements which normally have to agree in number with a controller, but the controller is
absent. The example that is cited for gender (see the entry on 'Gender' in this Inventory) also
illustrates the assignment of a default number value. In Polish, when a predicate adjective is
used in nominalisation (as in 'being happy') or a predicate adjective is a complement of an
infinitive, it has to appear in instrumental case, singular number, and masculine/neuter gender:

(1) Jest ważne być szczęśliwym.

is(3SG) important.N be.INF happy.M/N.SG.INS

cf. */??Jest ważne być szczęśliwą.

is(3SG) important.N be.INF happy.F.SG.INS

*/??Jest ważne być szczęśliwymi.

is(3SG) important.N be.INF happy.VIR/NVIR.PL.INS

'It is important to be happy.'

Since the adjective has to express gender and number, in a situation where there is no
controller that could dictate its gender and number, it shows 'default agreement', which is
typically 'third person singular neuter'. Hence, instances of adjectives expressing number, which
have no controller for number, are not instances of government but of default agreement in

Jump to top of page/ top of section

7. Key literature
 Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP.
 Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Number. In: Brown, Keith (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language and
Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. 724-731.
 Newman, Paul. 2006. Pluractionals (Distributives). In: Brown, Keith (ed.) The Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. 640-641.


 Acquaviva, Paolo. 2004. Constraining inherent inflection: number and nominal aspect. Folia
Linguistica 38(3/4):333-354.
 Acquaviva, Paolo. (forthcoming). Plural mass nouns and the compositionality of number. To
appear in Verbum 26.
 Allan, Keith. 1980. Nouns and countability. Language 56:541-567.
 Anderson, Stephen R. 1982. Where's morphology? Linguistic Inquiry 13:571-612.
 Bhattacharya, Sudhibhushan. 1976. Gender in the Munda languages. In: Jenner, Philip N.,
Laurence C. Thompson & Stanley Starosta (eds) Austroasiatic Studies: Part I. (Oceanic
Linguistics Special Publication 13). Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii. 189-211.
 Booij, Geert. 1994. Against split morphology. In: Booij, Gert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook
of Morphology 1993. Dordrecht: Kluwer. 27-49.
 Booij, Geert. 1996. Inherent versus contextual inflection and the split morphology hypothesis.
In: Booij, Gert & Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1995. Dordrecht: Kluwer. 1-
 Corbett, Greville G. 1979. The agreement hierarchy. Journal of Linguistics 15:203-224.
 Corbett, Greville G. 1999. Prototypical inflection: implications for typology. In: Booij, Gert &
Jaap van Marle (eds) Yearbook of Morphology 1998. Dordrecht: Kluwer. 1-22.
 Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: CUP.
 Corbett, Greville G. 2005. Suppletion in personal pronouns: theory versus practice, and the
place of reproducibility in typology. Linguistic Typology 9(1):1-23. Available
at: http://www.atypon-link.com/WDG/doi/pdf/10.1515/lity.2005.9.1.1
 Corbett, Greville G. 2006a. Agreement. Cambridge: CUP.
 Corbett, Greville G. 2006b. Number. In: Brown, Keith (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language
and Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. 724-731.
 Crevels, Mily. 2006. Verbal number in Itonama. In: Rowicka, Grażyna J. & Elthne B. Carlin
(eds) What's in a Verb? (LOT Occasional Series 5). Utrecht: LOT Publications. 159-170.
Available at: http://lotos.library.uu.nl/publish/articles/000159/bookpart.pdf
 Cruse, D. Alan. 1994. Number and number systems. In: Asher, R.E. (ed.) The Encyclopedia
of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 2857-2861.
 Dixon, R.M.W. 1980. The Languages of Australia. Cambridge: CUP.
 Dixon, R.M.W. 1981. Wargamay. In: Dixon, R.M.W. & Barry J. Blake (eds) The Handbook of
Australian Languages II: Wargamay, the Mpakwithi Dialect of Anguthimri, Watjarri, Margany
and Gunya, Tasmanian. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1-144.
 Dryer, Matthew S. 2005. Coding of nominal plurality. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Mattew S.
Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures
(WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 138-141.
 Durie, Mark. 1986. The grammaticization of number as a verbal category. Berkeley
Linguistics Society 12:355-370.
 Evans, Nicholas. 2003. Bininj Gun-wok: a pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and
Kune (2 volumes). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
 Everett, Daniel. 1986. Pirahã. In: Derbyshire, Desmond C. & Geoffrey K. Pullum
(eds) Handbook of Amazonian Languages I. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 200-325.
 Everett, Daniel. 1997. Pirahã. Unpublished material from the ESRC Research Seminar Series
'Challenges for Inflectional Description' - III, University of Surrey, 13 May 1997.
 Haspelmath, Martin. 2005. Occurrence of nominal plurality. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Mattew S.
Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures
(WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 142-145.
 Hutchisson, Don. 1986. Sursurunga pronouns and the special uses of quadral number. In:
Wiesemann, Ursula (ed.) Pronominal Systems. (Continuum 5). Tübingen: Narr. 217-255.
 Jackendoff, Ray. 1991. Parts and boundaries. Cognition 41:9-45.
 Jacobson, Steven A. 1984. Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary. Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language
Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
 Krifka, Manfred. 1994. Mass expressions. In: Asher, R.E. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 2393-2395.
 Lee, Han-Gyu. 1991. Plural marker copying in Korean. Studies in the Linguistic
Sciences 21(1):81-105.
 Masica, Colin P. 1991. The Indo-Aryan Languages. Cambridge: CUP.
 Mithun, Marianne. 1988a. Lexical categories and the evolution of number marking. In:
Hammond, Michael & Michael Noonan (eds) Theoretical Morphology: Approaches in Modern
Linguistics. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. 211-234.
 Mithun, Marianne. 1988b. Lexical categories and number in Central Pomo. In: Shipley,
William (ed.) In Honor of Mary Haas: from the Haas Festival Conference on Native American
Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 517-537.
 Moravcsik, Edith. 2003. A semantic analysis of associative plurals. Studies in
Language 27:469-503.
 Newman, Paul. 2006. Pluractionals (Distributives). In: Brown, Keith (ed.) The Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier. 640-641.
 Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
 Piper, Nick. 1989. A Sketch Grammar of Meryam Mir. MA thesis, Australian National
 Roberts, John R. 1987. Amele. London: Croom Helm.
 Song, Jae Jung. 1997. The so-called plural copy in Korean as a marker of distribution and
focus. Journal of Pragmatics 27:203-224.
 Song, Seok Choong. 1975. Rare plural marking and ubiquitous plural marker in
Korean. Chicago Linguistic Society 11:536-546.
 Smith-Stark, T. Cedric. 1974. The plurality split. Chicago Linguistic Society 10:657-671.
 Turner, Paul R. 1976. Pluralization of nouns in Seri and Chontal. In: Langdon, Margaret &
Shirley Silver (eds) Hokan Studies: Papers from the First Conference on Hokan Languages
held in San Diego, California, April 23-25, 1970. (Janua Linguarum, Series Practica 181). The
Hague: Mouton. 297-303.

Jump to top of page/ top of section

How to cite this entry:

Kibort, Anna & Greville G. Corbett. "Number." Grammatical Features. 25 January 2008.

Noun Classes...and Noncount Nouns

Form & Meaning Groups

Grammar reference books generally point out several important of sub-divisions of

English nouns. These categories are important to us as ESL/EFL teachers for two
reasons: (1) They are involved in noun meaning--and in vocabulary teaching. (2)
These different forms have different ways of being used in context--and so in
grammar. For example, choice of an article depends on whether a noun is count
singular or count plural or noncount.

This system actually combines two somewhat different systems--the form-based one
of common/proper and count/noncount along with the meaning-based
abstract/concrete system.
Form-Based System

This whole system of common/proper and count/noncount is full of important things

that our students need to learn to handle. Here's a tentative list of areas that need to be
taught--and you can probably think of other items to add.

1. How are names formed and used in English? How are they spelled? What word
order is used? How can you tell women's names from men's names? When
is the required? When is theimpossible?

2. What's the difference between a count noun and a noncount noun? How can you
tell if a noun is count or noncount? Why does it matter--how does knowing the
difference matter in making grammatical choices? Which articles are used with
3. How are plural nouns formed? Which are regular? How are the regular endings
pronounced? How are they spelled? Which are irregular? How are these irregular
noun spelled and pronounced? Which ones are really important for a student to learn
to recognize and to use?

What are Noncount Nouns?

We can find lists of noncount nouns in most ESL/EFL textbooks. Such lists imply
that noun class membership is a constant and that a word is always count or
noncount. Of course, the truth is somewhat more complicated.

Counting Noncount Nouns & Changing them to Count Nouns

We can use partitive constructions to count noncount nouns: A glass of wine, a piece
of music, and so forth.

In addition, many nouns that are generally noncount can have count versions--with a
subtle change in meaning. Words like wine and music can refer to the "thing"
generally in a noncount form: I like wine and music. But we can talk about particular
instances of these: I had a wine from France for dinner; I like the music of Brazil.
Here's where the meaning-based categories of abstract and concrete come into play in
a way that is important for ESL/EFL teachers because we can organize lessons around
these categories. Generally, abstract noncount nouns (music--and beauty, truth,
eduation, freedom, and others) can have a count form for a change in meaning. When
we want to refer to a unit of the stuff or an individual, we can move the abstract from
the noncount side of the chart to the count side of the chart. That's how Jefferson
could write "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Or Roosevelt could talk about
the "Four Freedoms." Or I can say about my rose garden in the spring, "There are
three beauties out there today."

This same pattern is also true with many concrete noncount nouns. These are words
like wine--and cheese, tea, coffee, and many others. These noncount nouns can
become count when we refer to "a kind or type of" something or "a unit of
something." They sell many cheeses at the Farmer's Market. I want a cheese from
Italy to go with this pasta dish.

Count vs. Noncount Meaning: Countability in English

Some words commonly have both count and noncount versions--for different
meanings: crime, for example. Or, love. Or, cake.

Crime doesn't pay. He committed three different crimes in one evening.

Love makes the world go round. She has three loves--song, dance, and English
grammar. His car is the only love in his life.

Cake is a very popular dessert in the U.S. I like cake. I bought a cake for the
party. We had several cakes for the celebration.

Thus, count nouns are used to refer to individual units or instances while noncount
nouns refer to a more abstract level of meaning.

The issue is what grammarians call countability. Actually, English has a scale of
countability for nouns. In Allan (1980), eight levels of accountability are
presented. He compared nouns like information--mankind--police--book.

At one end of his scale are highly abstract nouns like information (that aren't
generally used in a count form).
At the other end are nouns like book (that aren't generally used in a noncount form for
an abstract meaning).

In between are nouns like crime (with both forms possible on a regular basis)
or truth(with both forms possible but the noncount more commonly used).

The Importance of Noncount Nouns

Understanding the meaning and use of noncount nouns is a tremendous challenge for
ESL/EFL learners and teachers. The topic is important because of the influence of
noncount nouns on article and determiner choice.

1. Knowing if a noun is count or noncount is central to knowing which article can be

used--or if the noun can be used without an article. Why is a/an or the required with
the word apple? I bought an apple. I ate the apple. Not: *I bought apple. *I ate

2. Knowing the meaning difference between a count version and a noncount version
of the same noun can be important in understanding both spoken and written
English. How are these uses of the word crime different in meaning? Crime makes
people fearful. Many crimes go unpunished.

3. Because academic materials are often about concepts rather than instances,
noncount nouns are often used. Look at the following passage from a psychology
textbook--the writer uses both the count and the noncount versions of the
word behavior. (And an adjective form, too!)

from an undergraduate psychology textbook

Organisms as diverse as humans and squid share many biological

processes. However, their unique behavioral capacities depend on
the differences in their physiological makeup. You and I have a
larger repertoire of behaviors than the octopus in large part because
we come equipped with a more complex brain and nervous
system. The activity of the human brain is so complex that no
computer has ever come close to duplicating it. Your nervous
system contains as many cells busily integrating and relaying
information as there are stars in our galaxy. Whether you are
scratching your nose or composing an essay, the activity of those
cells underlies what you do. It is little wonder, then, that many
psychologists have dedicated themselves to exploring the biological
bases ofbehavior.

Problems of ESL/EFL Learners with Noncount Nouns

We know that students have trouble selecting the correct article + noun combination
for the meanings that they want.

Sometimes they choose the wrong article: *I like the music.

Sometimes they make a noncount into a count--in a way not generally allowed by
English: *My teacher gives us lots of homeworks."

Sometimes they use count nouns without articles in ways that makes the meaning
seem strange--it seems at first as if the writer is trying to make the countable noun into
a noncount for a conceptual change--a move away from the countable end of the scale
toward a more abstract and noncountable meaning: *This story tells
about relationshipbetween families.

Knowing if a noun is count or noncount is central to making correct choices for

article + noun combinations. How do you think that students can learn this
important distinction? What would you do to help your students learn to use
noncount nouns accurately?

Please send me your questions and comments at patbyrd@comcast.net


Allan, K. (1980). Nouns and countability. Language 56:3, 541-567.


Singulars and plurals - English

Singulars and plurals - English Morphology

3. plurals same as singulars

- some words ending in –s do not change in plural: barracks, crossroads, headquarters, means, series,
species, works, Swiss
- some singular uncountable nouns end in –s → they have no plurals: news, billiards, draughts (and some
other names of games ending in –s), measles (and
some other illnesses)
- most words ending in –ics are normally singular uncountable and have no plural use: mathematics,
athletics, physics
Too much mathematics is usually taught in school.
- some words ending in –ics can also have plural uses: politics, statistics
Politics is a complicated business. BUT: The unemployment statistics are disturbing. (konkrétna štatistika)
(The acoustics in this room are awful. – konkrétna akustika)

- other nouns which do not change in the plural are craft (meaning “vehicle”): aircraft, spacecraft,
- Chinese, Japanese and other nationalities nouns ending in –ese
- sheep, fish, deer and the names of some other living creatures (especially those that are hunted or used
for food)
- dozen, hundred, thousand, million, stone (14 pounds), and foot (12 inches) have plurals without –s in
some kinds of expressions
- Dice (used in board games) is originally the plural of die which is not now often used in this sense. In
modern Eneglish dice is gene rally used as both singular and plural.
- Data is originally the plural of datum, which is not now used.

4. foreign plurals

analysis – analyses (Latin)

appendix – appendices (Latin) /appendixes
bacterium – bacteria (Latin)
medium – media (Latin) /mediums
cactus – cacti (Latin) /cactuses
fungus – fungi (Latin) /funguses
criterion – criteria (Greek)
phenomenon – phenomena (Greek)
formula – formulae (Latin) /formulas
vertebra – vertebrae (Latin) /vertebras
kibbutz – kibbutzim (Hebrew)

- some foreign plural (agenda, spaghetti) are singular in English

Plurals in ’s

An apostrophe (’) is used before the -’s in the plurals of letters of the alphabet, and sometimes in the
plurals of dates and abbreviations:
She spelt ‚ necessary‘ with two c’s. (NOT …two cs)
I loved the 1960’s. (OR …the 1960s)
Do you think PM’s do a good job? (Or …MPs…)

Compound nouns

- in noun + adverb combinations, the plural –s is usually added to the noun:

passer-by → passers-by
runner-up → runners-up

- the plural of mother-in-law and similar words is generally mothers-in-law etc, but some people use
mother-in-laws etc

- the plural of court martial (=‚military court‘) is either courts martial (more formal) or court martials (less

- a noun + noun combinations, the first noun is usually singular in form even if the meaning is plural (shoe
shop – 2 shoe shop). There are some exceptions.

Plurals with no singular form (pluralia tantum)

- Cattle is a plural word used to talk collectively about bulls, cows and calves; it has no singular and cannot
be used for counting individual animals (one cannot say, for instance, three cattle): Many cattle are
suffering from a disease called BSE. (NOT much cattle)

- Police is normally used as a plural: The police are looking for a fair-haired man in his twenties. (NOT The
police is looking)

- trousers, jeans, pyjamas (US pajamas), pants, scales, scissors, glasses, binoculars, pliers, and the names
of many similar divided objects are plural and have no singular forms: Your jeans are too tight. ‚Where are
my glasses?‘‚ They’re on your nose.‘

- other common word which are normally plural include: clothes, congratulations, contents, customs (at a
frontier), funds (=money), goods, manners
(=social behaviour), the Middle Ages (=period of history), oats (but corn, wheat, and barley are singular
uncountable), odds (=chances), outskirts, premises (=building), regards, remains, savings, stairs (=a flight
of stairs), steps (=a flight of steps), surrounding, thanks

Pronunciation of regular plurals

• nouns ending in sibilants /s, z, š, ž, č, dž/, add /iz/

buses, guises, crashes, garages, watches, bridges
• nouns ending in other unvoiced consonants (except /s, š, č/), add /s/
cats, maps, sticks, myths
• nouns ending in vowels and voiced consonants (except /z, ž, dž/), add /z/
boys, dogs, girls, times unions
• plural with irregular pronunciation
baths /ba:θs OR ba:δz/, roofs /ru:fs OR ru:vz/, houses /hausiz OR huaziz/, mouths, truths, youths, paths,

- 3rd person singular forms (catches, wants, runs) and possessive forms (George’s, Mark’s) follow the same
pronunciation rules as regular plurals

Singular nouns with plural verbs

Groups of people

In British English, singular words like family, tem, government, which refer to groups of people can be used
either singular or plural verbs and pronouns:
This team is/are going to lose.
- plural forms are common when the group is considered a collection of people doing personal things like
deciding, hoping or wanting; and in these cases we use who, not which, as a relative pronoun. Singular
forms (with which as a relative pronoun) are more common when the group is been as an impersonal unit.

My family have decided to move to Nottingham. They think it’s a better place to live. The average British
family has 3,6 members. It is smaller and richer than 50 years ago. My firm are wonderful. They do all they
can for me. My firm was founded in the 18th century.
- When a group noun is used with a singular determiner (a/an, each, every, his, that), singular verbs and
pronouns are normal:
The team are full of enthusiasm. A team which is full of enthusiasm has a better chance of winning. (more
natural than A team who are full…)

Plural expressions with singular verbs

- sometimes singular and plural forms are mixed: The group gave its first concert in June and they are
already booked up for the next six months.
- examples: bank, family, party, class, club, committer, England (football team), firm, jury, government,
ministry, orchestra, public, school, staff, team, union, the BBC, choir
- in American English singular verbs are normally used with them

Quantifying expressions

- Many singular quantifying expressions can be used with plural nouns and pronouns; plural verbs are
normally used in this case:
A number of people have tried to find the treasure.
A group of us are going to take a bout through the French canals.
A couple of my friends are going to open a travel agency.
A lot of social problems are caused by unemployment.
The majority of criminals are not violent.
Some of these people are friends of mine.
Half of his students don’t understand a word he says.

Plural expressions with singular verbs

Amounts and qualities

Where is that five pounds I lent you? (NOT where are…)
Twenty miles is a long way to walk. (NOT twenty miles are…)
We’ve only get 5 litres of petrol left. That isn’t enough. (NOT those aren’t…)

Countable and uncountable nouns

The differences between countable and uncountable nouns

- C nouns are the names of separate objects, people, ideas etc which can be counted. We can use numbers
and the article a/an with C noun, they have plurals:
a cat – three cats, a newspaper – two newspapers
- U (or ‚mass‘) nouns are the names of materials, liquids, abstract qualities, collections and other things
which we see as masses without clear boundaries, and not as separate objects. We cannot use numbers
with U nouns, and most are singular with no plurals.

- We do not normally use a/an with U nouns, though there are some exceptions:
water – NOT a water or two waters
wool – NOT a wool or two wools
weather – NOT a weather or two weathers

- some determiners can only be used with C nouns (many, few), others can only be used with U nouns
(much, less):
How many hours do you work?
How much money do you earn?

- not all nouns are either simply C or simply U. Many nouns have both C and U uses, sometimes with a
difference of meaning

Problem case:

C: bean(s), pea(s), grape(s), lentil(s), fact(s)

U: rice, spaghetti, macaroni (and other pasta food), sugar, salt

English and other languages:

accommodation a place to live
advice a piece of advice
bread a piece of bread
chess a game of chess
grass a blade of grass
information a piece of information
knowledge a fact
lightening a flash of lightening
luck a bit/stroke of luck
money a note, a coin, a sum
poetry a poem
progress a step forward

- Note when U English words are borrowed by other languages they may change into C words with different


- The name of illnesses are usually U in English, including those ending in –s: If you’ve get measles, you
can’t get it again.There’s a lot of flu around at the moment.
- The words for some minor ailments are C; a cold, a sore throat, a headache. However toothache, earache,
stomach-ache and backache are more often U in British English.
In American English, these words are generally C it they refer to particular attacks of pain.
Love isn’t as bad as toothache. (GB)
Love isn’t as bad as a toothache. (US)

Mixed uses:

- Many nouns have both C and U uses with some differences of meaning:
I’d like some typing paper.
I’m going out to buy a paper. =newspaper
Have you got any coffee?
Could I have two coffees? =cups of coffee
- And normally U nouns can often be used as C if we are talking about different kind of material, liquid etc:
Not all washing powders are kind to your hands.
The 1961 wines were among the best on the last century.
- Many abstract nouns can have both U and C uses; corresponding to more ‚general‘ and more particular‘
Don’t hurry - there’s plenty of time.
Have a good time.
- Singular C nouns are sometimes used as U (with enough, such, plenty of/a lot of) in order to express the
idea of amount:
I’ve got too much nose and not enough chin.
We’ve got enough paint for about 20 square feet of wall.

a/an with uncountable nouns:

We needed a secretary with a first-class knowledge of Germen.

She has always had a deep distrust of strangers.
My parents wanted me to have a good education.

Plural uncountable nouns:

- Some U are plural, have no singular forms with the some meaning, and cannot be used with numbers:
groceries, arms, remains, goods, customs, clothes, thanks, regards, police
I’ve bought the groceries.

(references to males and females)

- English does not have many problems of grammatical gender. Usually people are he or she and things are

- note the following points:

animals, cars, ships and countries:
- people sometimes call animal he or she, especially when they though of as having personality, intelligence
or feelings. This is common with pets and domestic animals like cats, dogs and horses:
Go and find the cat and put her out.
- he is sometimes used in cases where the sex of an animal is no known:
Look at the little frog. Isn’t he sweet?
- some people use she for cars, motorbikes, sailors often us she for boat and ships
- we can use she for countries, but it is more common in modern English:
France has decided to increase its trade with Romania. (OR her trade)

he or she
- traditionally, English has used he in cases where the sex of person is not known, or in references that can
apply to either men or women, especially on formal style:
If a student is ill, he must send a medical certificate to the College office.
A doctor can’t do a good job if he doesn’t like people.
- now the expression he or she is becoming increasingly common:
If a student is ill, he or she must send a medical certificate to the College office.
A doctor can’t do a good job if he or she doesn’t like people.

unisex they
- in an formal style, we often use they to mean he or she, especially after indefinite words like somebody,
anybody, nobody, person. This usage is sometimes considered ‚ incorrect‘, but it has been common in
educated speech for centuries:
If anybody wants my ticket they can have it.

actor and actress etc

- few jobs and position have different words for men and women: actor – actress, groom – bride, duke –
duchess, hero – heroine, host – hostess, monk – nun, prince – princess, widower – widow
- some words ending in –ess have gave out of use:
steward and stewardess are being replaced by other term such as flight attendant

words ending in –man

- some words ending in –man do not have a common feminine equivalent (chairman, fireman, spokesman).
On many cases –person is now used instead of man (chairperson).
- in some cases new words ending in –woman are coming into use (spokeswoman)
- supervisor instead of foreman
ambulance staff instead of ambulance man
firefighter instead of fireman

Koniec vytlačenej stránky z http://referaty.atlas.sk