Grammatical number

From Academic Kids

Number in linguistics is a grammatical category that can affects lexemes such as nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs. For nouns and pronouns, number specifies – to some degree of accuracy – the quantity of instances of the referent (e.g. one instance = cat; many instances = cats). For verbs the number usually refers to the quantity of a linked noun or pronoun (usually the subject of the verb). For some such instances of numerical agreement, the linked word need not be given explicitly but can be implied (e.g. in Latin: amat = (he) loves; amant = (they love). The number of the pronomial subject is implied by the number of the verb).

Occasionally, the concept of number is extended to include those aspectual categories that indicate the number of times an event occurs (e.g. semelfactive aspect, iterative aspect, etc.).


Types of number

Grammatical number is distinct from the use of numerals to specify the exact quantify of a noun; grammatical number is usually much vaguer. In many languages, including nearly all modern Indo-European ones, number is limited to distinguishing between one referent (singular number) and many referents (plural number). However, other instances of number exist, including:

Some languages simply do not have instances of grammatical number (e.g. in Mandarin)

Expression of number

Synthetic languages typically distinguish grammatical number by inflection; in contrast, Analytic languages such as Chinese don't indicate number morphologically, but use contexts and quantifiers. Below are some examples of number affixes for nouns (where the inflecting morpheme is underlined):

  • suffixes
    • English: cat (singular) ~ cats (plural) ; also ox ~ oxen
    • French: chat ("cat"/singular) ~ chats ("cat"/plural) (but see comment below)
    • Japanese: 私 watashi ("I"/general) ~ 私たち watashitachi ("I"/collective)
    • Slovenian: lipa ("tree"/singular) ~ lipi ("tree/dual) ~ lipe ("tree/plural)
    • Turkish: adam ("man"/singular) ~ adamlar ("man"/plural),
  • prefixes
    • Swahili: mtoto ("child"/singular) ~ watoto ("child"/plural) (prefixes are also common in other Bantu languages)
  • simulfixes
    • Arabic: كِتَاب kitāb ("book"/singular) ~ كُتُب kutub ("book"/plural)
    • English: man (singular) ~ men (plural) ; also goose ~ geese
    • German: Vater ("father"/singular) ~ Vter ("father"/plural)
  • reduplication :
    • Indonesian: orang (person/singular) ~ orang-orang (person/plural)
    • Japanese: 人 hito (person/general) ~ 人人 hito-bito (person/collective)
    • Somali: buug (book/singular) ~ buug-ag (book/plural)

Number in specific languages

English is typical of languages that have only singular and plural number. English does not distinguish among dual, trial, or paucal number. The plural form of a word is usually created by adding the suffix -s. Pronouns are irregular precisely because they are so common, such as the singular I and the plural we.

See English plural for detail.

Slovene is more complicated:

  • babarija (old wives tale) (singular), babariji (two old wives tales) (dual), babarije (three old wives tales), baberij (five or more old wives tales)
  • hiša (house) (singular), hiši (two houses) (dual), tri hiše (three houses) (plural), šest hiš (six houses) (plural)
  • miš (mouse) (singular), miši (two or three mice) (dual := plural)
  • jaz (I) (singular), midva/midve (we) (dual + [Masculine/Feminine gender]), mi/me (we) (plural [Ma/Fe gender])
  • vrata (one door) (singular), dvoje vrat (two doors) (dual), tri vrata (three doors) (plural), [plural noun with different or same form]
  • babine (afterbirth period) (archaic meaning) (singular), babini (two afterbirth periods) (dual), babine (three afterbirth periods), [plural noun with different or same form]
  • človeštvo (mankind) (singular), človeštvi (two mankind) (dual), človeštva (three mankind), [collective noun with different form]
    • When a number reaches one hundred and one(two) (or several hundred or thousand), singular and dual are used again. (ena knjiga (one book) (singular),dve knjigi (two books) (dual), pet knjig (five books) (plural), sto ena knjiga (101 books) sto dve knjigi(102 books))
    • These and similar examples are very often used incorrectly, even in published or electronic dictionaries.

In Hebrew, most nouns have only singular and plural forms, such as sefer - sfarim ("book - books"), but some have singular, dual, and plural forms, such as yom - yomaim - yamim ("day - two days - days"). Some words occur so often in pairs that what used to be the dual form is now the general plural, such as ayin - eynayim ("eye - eyes"). Adjectives, verbs, and pronouns have only singular and plural, with the plural forms of these being used with dual nouns.

Written French declines nouns for number (singular or plural). In terms of pronunciation, however, the majority of nouns (and adjectives) are not actually declined for number. This is because the -s suffix, which marks plural nouns and adjectives, is not generally pronounced (but see liaison for an exception), and thus does not really show anything; the plural article or determiner is the real indicator of plurality. However, plural nouns still exist in spoken French because some irregular nouns form plurals in a way that is pronounced differently: for example, cheval ("horse") is pronounced , while chevaux ("horses") is pronounced . Similarly, some irregular adjectives do decline for number in spoken French.

Inverse number

The languages of the Kiowa-Tanoan family have three numbers - singular, dual, and plural - and exhibit an unusual system, called inverse number (or number toggling), of marking number. In this scheme, every countable noun has what might be called its "inherent" or "expected" numbers, and is unmarked for these numbers. When a noun appears in an inverse ("unexpected") number, it is inflected to mark this. For example, in Jemez, where nouns take the ending -sh to denote an inverse number, there are four noun classes, as follows:

class description singular ending dual ending plural ending
I animate nouns - -sh -sh
II some inanimate nouns -sh -sh -
III other animate nouns - -sh -
IV mass (non-countable) nouns (n/a) (n/a) (n/a)

As can be seen, class-I nouns are inherently singular, class-II nouns are inherently plural, class-III nouns are inherently singular or plural. Class-IV nouns cannot be counted and are never marked with -sh. From (Sprott 1992, p. 53).

Effect of number on verbs and other parts of speech

Not only nouns can be declined by number. In many languages, adjectives are declined according to the number of the noun they modify. For example, in French, one may say un arbre vert (a green tree), and des arbres verts ([some] green trees). The word vert (green), in the singular, becomes verts for the plural (unlike English green, which remains green).

In many languages, verbs are conjugated by number as well. Using French as an example again, one says je vois (I see), but nous voyons (we see). The verb voir (to see) in the first person changes from vois in singular, to voyons in plural. In English this occurs in the third person (she runs, they run) but not first or second.

Normally verbs agree with their subject noun in number. But in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit neuter plurals took a singular verb. In English, or at least British English, singular nouns collectively referring to people may take plural verbs, as the committee are meeting; use of this varies by dialect and level of formality.

Other qualifiers may also agree in number. The English article the does not, the demonstratives this, that do, becoming these, those, and the article a, an is omitted or changed to some in the plural. In French and German, the definite articles have gender distinctions in the singular but not the plural. In Portuguese, the indefinite article um, uma has plural forms uns, umas.

See also


  • Merrifield, William (1959). Classification of Kiowa nouns. International Journal of American Linguistics, 25, 269-271.
  • Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of native North America (pp. 81-82, 444-445). Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23228-7.
  • Sprott, Robert (1992). Jemez syntax. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago).
  • Wiese, Heike (2003). Numbers, language, and the human mind. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-83182-2.
  • Wonderly, Gibson, and Kirk (1954). Number in Kiowa: Nouns, demonstratives, and adjectives. International Journal of American Linguistics, 20, 1-7.

de:Numerus eo:Gramatika nombro fr:nombre grammatical zh:数 (语法)


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