The Linguistic Concept of Number and its Diversity
Number in linguistics clearly goes far beyond the simple arithmetical concept. Grammatical number overlaps with other arguably more primordial categories, such as countability and definiteness, and may carry significant cultural connotations also.
Many languages make no distinction between singular and plural or at least possess no marker of this distinction. Most internationally prestigious modern languages, however, distinguish singular (one) from plural (more than one) for either nouns or verbs or both and sometimes for adjectives also.
Theories of Countability in English
Grammar books normally assert that nouns in English can be countable or uncountable (other terms, such as ‘mass’ and ‘count’ nouns are also sometimes used) and it is often argued that this is similar to the way that nouns are classed as masculine or feminine or according to some other classification in other languages.
It is, however, a significant oversimplification to equate countability with grammatical gender. Mass and count words in English do not fit cleanly into categories or classes but range about along a relatively flexible continuum. Conservative estimates put the number of clear clusters along this spectrum at five, while eight is often cited as the agreed number among scholars of such matters.
These distinctions can be subtle, such as that between wine (uncountable) in general and wines (countable) meaning different kinds of wine, or somewhat more substantial, as in that between countable lambs (meaning the young animals skipping in the field) and uncountable lamb (the meat on a dinner plate). In some cases countable and non-countable versions of the same word may have distinct if not entirely unrelated meanings (e.g. uncountable ‘room,’ meaning space, and countable ‘rooms’ meaning the rooms of a house).
Countable nouns can be used in the plural, with numbers or with the indefinite article, while resiliently uncountable nouns cannot. Uncountable nouns form collocations with the quantifiers ‘much’ and ‘(a) little,’ while countable ones take ‘many’ and ‘(a) few’.
Furthermore, it is important to note that individual items of lexis may move back and forth along this spectrum over time.
Countability and Language Change in Present-Day English
One common shift over time is from the nearly always uncountable category to one of the categories that allow for countable uses (with or without some degree of difference in meaning).
The causes of this shift may be obscure but there can be no doubt that the phenomenon occurs among users of English as a second language. For example, the plural form of ‘research’ ‘researches’ is becoming common in international academic journals.
Some words, however, such as ‘information’, ‘equipment’, ‘music’ and ‘bread’ have proved more resistant to pluralization/countabilization even though they are used as such by many non-native speakers. Unlike ‘researches’, one is unlikely to find ‘informations’ in a major international publication. Interestingly, in the case of ‘researches,’ this plural form was in fact acceptable and not uncommon in the not too recent past.
It remains to be seen at which point instances of the use of such language become sufficiently commonplace to be deemed normative. For now, however, they clearly constitute non-standard forms of the language and should be corrected in more formal discourse.
More problematic, is the case where a traditionally uncountable word is made countable (usually by way of permitting pluralization) for ideological reasons or to express a new perspective on a subject.
As with other linguistic developments that fall into the somewhat pejorative category of ‘political correctness,’ the motivation for such wording ranges from a genuine need for greater precision, a marker of ideological purity, to, in the worst instances, mere imitation in an attempt to appear scholarly and/or progressive.
‘Feminisms’ plural, for example, meets a genuine need to indicate that the feminist movement embraces a wide diversity of theories and approaches but may also be employed by writers keen to demonstrate to their readers that they are sufficiently open-minded to be aware of this diversity. ‘Technologies’ used willy-nilly with no clear difference in meaning from ‘technology’ is, however, in my opinion, purely decorative and thus inelegant.
I would suggest, however, that, in most cases where there is some degree of flexibility with regard to countability, the word has been uncountable in the past and this usage is thus simply being revived.
This is the case with ‘research’, as seen above, and also of ‘history’, which is often pluralized nowadays in an academic context to underline the fact that there can be no single objective interpretation or account of historical events: women’s history differs from men’s history and even within these there are various different ‘histories’. This usage still seems borderline unorthodox today but it was not so long ago that ‘history’ and ‘story’ were synonyms and could both be used countably or uncountably. Indeed, the title of the first book of history in history—Herodotus’s Histories—contains the word history in the plural in its traditional English translation.
Non-standard usages relating to Concordance
Moving on from issues relating to countability, another area where confusion between singular and plural may arise and in which non-native speaker language use may have some influence concerns agreement in number between subject and predicate. Errors in this regard may be compounded by the question of countability.
This issue is often presented in grammar books in terms of cases where a plurality of subjects each possesses a certain object.
[1a] The two men put their hats on their heads.
[1b] *The two men put their hat on their head.
In some languages 1a would sound strange because each man only has one hat, but in English 1b strikes the reader as very unnatural, even though the normal English rendering leaves room for some doubt as to whether each man wore one hat or more.
As is often the cases with grammar books and grammar exercises, however, such examples are both infrequent and atypical. More common is confusion between phrases such as
[2a] People’s everyday lives
[2b] ?People’s everyday life
in which the ‘wrongness’ of the second is far less obvious.
In my experience, it is far more frequent to encounter cases of concordance error where countability issues also play a role.
The following sentence, for example, is entirely correct and sounds quite natural in English.
[3a] Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatment for patients.
Many non-native speakers, however, will write this sentence as follows:
[3b] ?Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatments for patients.
The logic is that many patients receive many different kinds of treatment and, indeed, the same patient may receive multiple treatments. Singular therefore would be wrong.
However, to a native speaker, while not wrong, the over-precision of this sentence sounds a little strained, as if the writer were laboring the obvious. As a general rule, English prefers vagueness, where meaning can reasonably be inferred from context.
If we replace the word ‘treatment’ with a word that falls into the resiliently uncountable category, such as ‘care’, the plural sounds very strange indeed and would be considered by most native speakers to be non-standard or wrong.
 *Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing cares for patients
Note the following, however:
[5a] Patients undergoing multiple treatments must be especially careful with their medication.
[5b] Patients undergoing treatment …
Here we need to add the word ‘multiple’ because otherwise the plural would sound strange. The singular, on the other hand, implies a certain specific kind of treatment.
As noted at the beginning of this section, movement from countable to uncountable status may combine with an urge to provide the kind of unnecessary precision discussed here.
In phrases, quite common these days such as
[6a] ?The course provides various insights into the psychologies of young children.
it is by no means clear whether the author intends to emphasize the plural nature of child psychology or perspectives on it, or whether they are opting for over-precision, on the grounds that any one child can evidently be affected by more than one psychological condition.
In cases, where these strategies overlap in such a way that the making of a valid point becomes indistinguishable from error, I think it is justified to categorize such usage as non-standard. Especially since such sentences can almost always easily be reworded to avoid the ambiguity.
[6b] The course provides various insights into the psychological states and conditions of young children.
Brevity and familiarity of discourse may however play a role in such linguistic decisions on the part of writers and speakers. If so, ‘psychologies’ could be regarded as acceptable shorthand for ‘psychological states and conditions’.
A related, although somewhat marginal and self-contained issue concerns the agreement of seemingly singular quantifiers such as ‘a number of’ and ‘the majority’.
I think that most native speakers of English would baulk at the sentence
[7a] *?A number of issues was raised in the meeting
and prefer [7b] A number of issues were raised in the meeting.
Opinion regarding the following pair, however, may be more divided.
[8a] ?The majority of British families now possesses a washing-machine
[8b] The majority of British families now possess a washing-machine
To native speakers of a neo-Latin language, however, [7b] and [8b] sound outright wrong and such individuals will actively resist [7a] and [8a], because so much importance is attached to this particular ‘grammar rule’ in their schools.
Such concordance issues are not accorded so much emphasis in schools in English-speaking countries and it is not therefore uncommon for even educated writers to produce non-standard sentences such as:
[9a] *The quality of information technology courses have been on the decline in recent years
[9b] The quality of information technology courses has been on the decline in recent years.
Some US tests of English as a foreign language still include Use of English questions of this type.
This suggests that international cultural differences also play a role in determining the extent to which forms of use of the singular/plural distinction are acceptable or not. Different cultures entail different patterns of prescriptivism and such different cultures may co-exist within a single language community.
Number and Definiteness
Singular and plural can also be used to indicate subtle differences in the degrees of definiteness and in such cases the use of the definite article also plays a role.
[10a] Farmers need more support from the Federal Government
[10b] The farmer needs more support from the Federal Government.
The former sounds more natural nowadays, but the latter is commonly found in the political discourse of a few hundred years ago and is still not deemed non-standard today.
The definite article plus singular form persists in scientific treatises such as
[11a] “The Anatomy of the Horse”, i.e. the horse as an ideal type.
A book entitled [11b] “The Anatomy of Horses” suggests a more accessible guide for horse-owners.
Definiteness and number overlap in creating the desired effect.
Language is necessarily flexible and tolerates a certain quite large degree of ambiguity. Most patients will not complain or sue their doctors if their (indefinite/general) ‘cancer treatment’ in fact involves several different (definite/specific) kinds of treatment.
Anglo-American philosophers who are interested in the subject of generics attempt to distinguish subtle distinctions between different ways of saying very similar things. Their focus is somewhat different from mine in that they are interested both in the way concepts are supposedly organized in the human mind and in the nature of reality (if at all accessible), while I am interested here purely in linguistic patterns of use.
From the latter point of view, all of the following are possible ways of expressing the idea that members of the species of bear referred to in common parlance as ‘grizzly bears’ are biologically programmed to hibernate:
[12a] Grizzly bears sleep in the winter
[12b] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter
[12c] The grizzly bear sleeps in the winter
or [12d] The grizzly bears sleep in the winter
While an urge to avoid ambiguity, produces a clear preference for the first of these nowadays, a specific context may, however, lead our preference to shift to one of the others, as follows:
[12e] [contrasting groups] The polar bears hunt all year round, while the grizzly bears sleep in the winter.
[12f] [logical induction from general to specific] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter, so this one won’t bother us at this time of year.
[12g] [a natural history documentary] The grizzly bear sleeps through the winter, while much of the forest fauna continues to go about its everyday business.
In political discourse, nowadays, the generic with the definite article (such as ‘the farmer’, ‘the soldier’, ‘the voter’) seems to be being avoided in favor of the bare plural form ‘farmers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘voters’. This may reflect a concerted effort to avoid (or to be seen to avoid) stereotyping or homogenizing members of a diverse group. It may constitute an attempt to disambiguate the phrase. Or indeed may seek to accomplish both simultaneously. This same desire may underlie some of the less acceptable-seeming politically correct usages such as ‘child psychologies’.
Number in Legal English
While everyday English tends to prefer ambiguity and vagueness if a choice exists, legal language needs to be clear and its distinctions crisp. In legal usage, therefore, it may be necessary to provide explicit explanation to the effect that ‘the singular includes the plural’ or vice versa.
The [13a] ‘right to bear arms’ includes the right to carry just one weapon. A law stating that it is [13b] ‘illegal to discharge a fire arm in a public place’ does not imply that it would be permissible to use a whole arsenal.
Descriptivism, Tolerance and Prescriptivism in a Polarized Age
It is important in matters of language, as in all things, to strive to uphold a crisp distinction between subjective and objective criteria.
Linguistics has long been beset by a prescriptivist element that confuses the objective and subjective ‘rules’ and even some supposedly scientific descriptivist linguistic studies may justly be accused of this. Linguistic arguments that seem silly today were once considered highly objective. In the case of number, we need go back no further than Logan’s 1941 article on countability in US spoken discourse to find prejudice against language change donning the guise of objectivity. His “instances in which the plural adds nothing to the clarity of the statement, though the authors probably thought they were making a valuable distinction” include some turns of phrase that seem quite normal today. On the other hand, this same author also provides numerous examples of needless use of the plural that I feel would be unlikely to occur today. Few modern writers, for example, I think would follow Dickens in describing an after-dinner speaker as ‘toasting the healths’ of the guests.
It is, therefore, important that we remain alert to the possibility that over-tolerant anti-prescriptivism may itself become intolerant and prescriptivist. This will surely be the case if we accept the standards of our own age as the norm and, for instance, tolerate non-standard forms in which political correctness is at play, while baulking at non-native speaker errors such as ‘musics’ and ‘equipments’. More controversially, any full description of a language should surely include a description of any and all instances of perceived prescriptivism on the part of its many different users.
A Typology of Non-Standard Uses of the English Plural
By way of a tentative attempt to provide a typology and tolerance guide with regard to this particular feature of the English language, I suggest the following types of non-standard usage of plural/countable forms, presented here in order of increasing acceptability:
[A] Simple grammatical error [*The men is old]
[B] Use of plural form for resiliently uncountable nouns [*?The house has many furnitures]
[C] Over-precision in use of a plural form [?The doctor provided treatments for many patients]
[D] Plural applied for merely decorative purposes [?The school uses a variety of educational technologies]
[E] Plural applied to make an ideological point [?Feminisms in History]
[F] Plural applied for reason of greater accuracy (academic/legal English) [The 18th century saw the publication of numerous histories of England]
For anyone interesting in exploring this topic further, I include a short bibliography.
Aarts, B., Denison, D., Keizer, E., and Popova, G. (Eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: a reader. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Corbett, G.G. (2004) Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Downing, A. and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar: a university course. Routledge. New York and London.
Gillon, B. S. (1992) “Towards a Common Semantics for English Count and Mass Nouns” in
Linguistics and Philosophy 15(6), pp. 597-639
Hamm, F. and Hinrichs, E. (Eds.) (1998) Plurality and Quantification. Springer. Dordrecht.
Huddleston, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Jespersen, O. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Einar Munksgaard and George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Copenhagen and London.
Landman, F. (2011) “Count nouns – mass nouns, neat nouns – mess nouns” in The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. Volume 6 – Formal Semantics and Pragmatics. Discourse, Context and Models. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.4148/biyclc.v6i0.1579
Logan, C. T. (1941). “The Plural of Uncountables”in American Speech, 16(3), 170. doi:10.2307/486884
Massam, D. (2012) Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar in Use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate learners of English. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (1979) Mass Terms: some philosophical problems. Springer. Dordrecht.
Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (2010) Kinds, things, and stuff: mass terms and generics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Sharvy, R. (1978) “Maybe English Has no Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics” in Studies in Language, 2(3), pp.345–365. doi:10.1075/sl.2.3.04sha
Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. Master’s Dissertation. University of Tampere, Finland.
Storch, A. and Dimmendaal, G. J. (Eds.) (2014) Number – Constructions and Semantics: case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia