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Why is zero plural?

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901034.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 4:18 am Reply with quote

Why is zero plural?
As in: 0 eggs, 1 egg, 2 eggs?

My own research into this topic has shown that English is not the only language to do this. According to wikipedia here:, several other European languages also use the plural form for 0. My limited knowledge of linguistics and the history of languages thus leads me to look for a common ancestral language and, ah, we have Latin ...
The problem, though, is that I always believed that 0 as a concept wasn't really formalised until Brahmagupta came along in the 7th century - long after the fall of the "Latin empire". So surely this would stop Latin having a plural.singular usage of zero at all?

But of course, it could still be Latin.
For example, "there are no eggs in this basket". That is a plural form being used for 0 quantity. It doesn't use the word "zero" but the concept is the same. So maybe the concept came first, was formally addressed in gramatical terms, and then just extended out later to 0.
So if you were talking about "no objects" in Latin, would you use the plural?
"There are no eggs in this basket"? "There are no Visigoths attacking our city"? Can those phrases - or something similar - be translated into Latin?

Or maybe I'm on completely the wrong track and it has nothing to do with Latin at all.
So if so, what is the reason?

Sadurian Mike
901039.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 4:26 am Reply with quote

I have always assumed that it is simply saying that there are no eggs.

There are no eggs in the basket.
There is not an egg in the basket.

901057.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 5:38 am Reply with quote

You can say there is no egg in the basket if you're referring to the contents of an egg

901063.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 5:54 am Reply with quote

'Tis so with degrees of time or angle.

901085.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 6:53 am Reply with quote

Is it not a matter of being the other way around? All quantities of eggs are refered to in the plural EXCEPT the special case of a single egg. The singular is the special case - so you could correctly (if pedantically) state that "There is not an egg in the basket - there are two eggs".

It also relates to the discrete/continuous quanta syntax thing (less paint/fewer paint tins) because you would say "There is no tartan paint in stock" and "There are no tins of tartan paint in stock".

But we need a cunning linguist to give the authoratative answer.


901086.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 6:58 am Reply with quote

Surely it's not zero that's the oddball, but one? Every other quantity gets the plural, one is unique in not doing so. Indeed, in some languages no real distinction is made between singular and plural at all, or if it is in a way quite different to our own.

Edit: curse my cat, I'd have got there before PDR if not for him distracting me.

901103.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 8:25 am Reply with quote

We're in danger of conflating two different things here, so let us split the subject into two.

Consider first the concept of not having something. To put what PDR said into more formal language, in English no requires plural forms when the noun is countable - so "There are no eggs in this basket".

There are a few exceptions to this general principle. The main exception arises in circumstances where any number other than none or one would not be the norm. The girl next door is currently off men and has no boyfriend, but she has had in the past; it is not the case that she has had no boyfriends. (On the other hand, she has never been married; she has had no husband. But she's 19, so this is unsurprising; if she gets to 80 without ever marrying, in the modern world would we say that she has had no husbands?)

When the noun is uncountable, then no requires singular forms. In some mythical Utopia, there is no unemployment; there is no point expecting this to happen in the real world.

Every language that I know enough about to comment works in the same way here, although there is some difference between languages as to which nouns are countable and uncountable. For instance, furniture is countable in Polish - you use the plural if you mean all of the furniture. But violins are uncountable - if a musician owns more than one instrument, you have to say that he has two sets of violin.

Now to zero itself, that number which comes between -1 and 1. As already noted, Latin doesn't have a number zero as such, because the Romans didn't have the concept.

Languages which do have it vary as to whether it should be considered plural or singular; in English, Polish, and Spanish it's plural, but in French and German (I think) it's singular. The temperature will fall to zero degrees, mais la température tombera ŕ zéro degré.

901177.  Thu Apr 12, 2012 11:20 am Reply with quote

I would say the idea of singularising zero is wrong and those languages where it's treated as singular do so because of the inherited late arrival of the concept of zero.

One egg is singular, but 0, like all other numbers but 1, is not singular. As our language is limited to singular and plural, it makes sense for 0 to be plural.

But zero itself, like all numbers, is actually singular. The question in the OP is "Why is zero plural", not "are". If you ask what is the number of eggs in a basket, the answer will always be is. "It is 0", "it is 5", etc.

901337.  Fri Apr 13, 2012 3:50 am Reply with quote

CB27 wrote:
The question in the OP is "Why is zero plural", not "are". If you ask what is the number of eggs in a basket, the answer will always be is. "It is 0", "it is 5", etc.

We have a use/mention problem here. The question in the OP is actually:

"Why is [the word] "zero" plural?

The number zero does not denote a plurality, but the word "zero" is often treated as grammatically plural.

If you ask about the number of eggs in a basket, the implied subject of the answer "It is 0" is "the number"; which is singular.
If the question is "How many eggs are in the basket?" the answer is: "There are zero [eggs]."


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