What Is Number?

Number is a grammatical category. In English, the two number categories are singular and plural. These two categories relate to nouns, pronouns, determiners, and verbs. In other words, a noun, a pronoun, a determiner, or a verb can be described as singular or plural.

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Number
  • Real-Life Examples to Explain Number
  • Zero Is Plural!
  • Why Number Is Important
  • Test Time!
grammatical number

Easy Examples of Number

The word "singular" refers to a quantity of one. The word "plural" refers to more than one.

Here are some easy examples of nouns, pronouns, determiners, and verbs in the two number categories:
Word TypeNumber Category
Singular ExamplePlural Example
Nouncat, mousecats, mice
PronounI, me, you, he, him, she, her, it we, us, you, they, them
Determiner this, that, a, an, my, your, his, her, its these, those, our, your, their
Verbam, is, was, has, I play, he plays are, were, have, they play
Here is an example sentence with all singular words:
  • That man stalks her.
  • (Here, we have a singular determiner, noun, verb, and pronoun.)
Here is an example sentence with all plural words:
  • They smoke those leaves.
  • (Here, we have a plural pronoun, verb, determiner, and noun.)

Real-Life Examples to Explain Number

These real-life examples use just singular words.
  • A balanced diet means a cupcake in each hand.
  • It's simple. If it jiggles, it's fat. (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
  • I love my six-pack so much, I protect it with a layer of fat.
  • "Revenge" sounds mean, which is the reason I call it "returning the favour."
These examples use just plural words.
  • Dogs seek masters. Cats seek waiters.
  • When policemen on bikes arrest people, do they put them in their baskets?
  • They succeed because they think they can. (Roman poet Virgil)
  • If women ran things, we wouldn't have wars, just intense negotiations every 28 days. (Actor Robin Williams)

Zero Is Plural!

Here's an interesting quirk with grammatical number: The amount zero is treated as plural. For example:
  • 0 dogs (plural noun)
  • 1 dog (singular noun)
  • 2 dogs (plural noun)
  • 3 dogs (plural noun)

Why Number Is Important

Some words change when their grammatical number changes. For example, nouns tend to add an "s" (e.g., "cat" becomes "cats") when they become plural, verbs might fleet an "s" (e.g., "he plays" becomes "they play"), and some determiners change their forms (e.g., "this" becomes "these").

Compared to many other languages, we have it relatively easy with English because lots of words (especially adjectives) don't change at all when their grammatical number changes. For example, we say "smelly dog" and "smelly dogs." The word "smelly" doesn't change. That's not the case in many other languages:
  • French: chien malodorant becomes chiens malodorants
  • German: stinkender Hund becomes stinkende Hunde
  • Spanish: perro maloliente becomes perros malolientes
So, even though the risk of you making a mistake with grammatical number in English is low, it is worth understanding the term "grammatical number" because it will help with learning a foreign language.

Native English speakers are pretty good at ensuring their nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs agree in number with each other. More specifically, we're pretty good at ensuring:

Determiners agree in number with nouns

  • This love is silent. (Playwright TS Eliot)
  • (A singular determiner with a singular noun)
  • These accolades get in the way. (Singer Bob Dylan)
  • (A plural determiner with a plural noun)

Determiners agree in number with pronouns

  • I write my own quotations...except this one. I stole this one from somebody really clever. (Author Brian Celio)
  • (A singular determiner with a singular pronoun)
  • I want to be one of those ones: a legend. (Rapper Ty Dolla Sign)
  • (A plural determiner with a plural pronoun)

Nouns agree in number with verbs

  • A fly flies.
  • (A singular noun with a singular verb)
  • Flies fly.
  • (A plural noun with a plural verb)

Pronouns agree in number with verbs

  • Everything is self-evident. (French philosopher Rene Descartes).
  • (A singular pronoun with a singular verb)
  • Some are wise and some are otherwise. (Poet Tobias Smollett)
  • (A plural pronoun with a plural verb)
However, as good as we are at getting grammatical number right, we're not infallible. Here are eleven issues that often trip us up:

(Issue 1) Make sure "these" and "those" agree with their noun.

"These" and "those" modify plural nouns. Be especially careful when using the words "kind" and "type."
  • These kind of things. wrong cross
  • (It should be "kinds.")
  • Those type of issues. wrong cross
  • (It should be "types.")

(Issue 2) Don't make the wrong noun agree with the verb.

In a construction like "a box of videos or an assortment of chocolates," the verb must agree with the head noun (i.e., "box or assortment") not "videos or chocolates."
  • An assortment of chocolates are available from the shop. wrong cross
  • (It should be "is." The verb should agree with "assortment," which is singular.)
Read more about this issue on the page about prepositional phrases.

(Issue 3) Be aware that terms like "along with" and "together with" do not increase the number.

Unlike "and," terms like "along with," "together with," and "as well as" do not increase the number of the subject.
  • Bill and Ben are the Flowerpot Men. correct tick
  • (The word "and" increases the number.)
  • Bill together with Ben is a Flowerpot Man. correct tick
  • (The term "together with" does not increase the number.)

(Issue 4) Be aware that "or" and "nor" do not increase the number.

"Or" and "nor" (unlike "and") do not increase the number.
  • Bill or Ben is guilty of breaking the sunflower. correct tick
  • Neither Bill nor Ben has a clue about gardening. correct tick
Read more about this issue on the page about correlative conjunctions.

(Issue 5) Treat "either" and "neither" as singular.

Even though they seem to refer to two things, "either" and "neither" are singular.
  • Quorn nuggets or quorn chilli? Er, neither is my preference. correct tick
  • Either of the twins is available. correct tick
Read more about "either" and "neither".

(Issue 6) Be aware that collective nouns can be singular or plural.

A collective noun is a word that represents a group (e.g., "choir," "shoal," "team"). A collective noun can be singular or plural depending on the context.
  • The flock is moving away. correct tick
  • (When considered as one unit, a collective noun is singular.)
  • The flock are scattering in different directions. correct tick
  • (When the focus is on the individuals in the group, a collective noun is plural.)
Read more about collective nouns.

(Issue 7) Be aware that "none" can be singular or plural.

Even though some of your readers might expect you to treat it as singular, "none" can be singular or plural.
  • None of us is happy. correct tick
  • None of us are happy. correct tick
If your "none" translates best as "not one of," treat it as singular. If it translates best as "not any of," treat it as plural.

(Issue 8) Be aware that terms "like half of," "the majority of," and "a percentage of" can be singular or plural.

Expressions such as "half of," "a part of," "a percentage of," "a proportion of," and "a majority of" are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural.
  • Half of my life has put the other half in the grave. correct tick (French dramatist Pierre Corneille)
  • ("Half" is singular because it refers to "life," which is singular.)
  • Half of the American people have never read a newspaper, and half have never voted. One hopes it is the same half. correct tick (Writer Gore Vidal)
  • ("Half" is plural because it refers to "people," which is plural.)

(Issue 9) Treat "a number of" as plural, but "the number of" as singular.

The term "a number of" is plural, but "the number of" is singular.
  • A number of people are still sleeping rough in the town. correct tick
  • The number of people sleeping rough is growing. correct tick

(Issue 10) Be aware that terms like "all of" and "some of" can be singular or plural.

"All of," "any of," "more of," "most of," and "some of" are singular when they precede something singular but plural when they precede something plural.
  • Most of the story does not make sense. correct tick
  • ("Most" is singular because it precedes "story," which is singular.)
  • Most of the people do not realize it, but we're part of something much bigger than ourselves, and we're all connected in some way...not just through Facebook. correct tick
  • ("Most" is plural because it precedes "people," which is plural.)

(Issue 11) Treat "each of" as singular.

"Each" is singular. Don't treat it as plural when it appears in a term like "each of us" or "each of the children."
  • Each of my garments is something special in itself. correct tick (Fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy)
  • Each of us bears his own Hell. correct tick (Roman poet Virgil)

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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