Студопедия — The Category of Number of English Nouns
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The Category of Number of English Nouns

The category of number is expressed by the opposition of the plural form of the noun to the singular form of the noun. It is the system of opposites (such as girl – girls, foot – feet, etc.) showing whether the noun stands for one object or more than one, in other words, whether its grammatical meaning is 'oneness' or 'more-than-oneness' of objects.


All number opposites are identical in content: they contain two particular meanings of 'singular' and 'plural' united by the general meaning of the category, that of 'number'. But there is a considerable variety of form in number opposites, though it is not so great as in the Russian language.


An English noun lexeme can contain two number opposites at most (toy – boys, boy's – boys'). Many lexemes have but one opposes me (table – tables) and many others have no opposites at all (ink, news).

In the opposite boy – boys 'singularity' is expressed by a zero morpheme and 'plurality' is marked by the positive morpheme /-z/, in spelling –.s. In other words, the 'singular' member of the opposite is not marked, and the 'plural' member is marked.

In the opposite boy's – boys' both members have positive morphemes –‘s, – s’, but these morphemes can be distinguished only in writing. In the spoken language their forms do not differ, so with regard to each other they are unmarked. They can be distinguished only by their combinability (cf. a boy's head, boys' heads).

In the overwhelming majority of cases the form of the 'plural' morpheme is /-s/, /-z/, or /-z/, in spelling – (e) s, e. g, books, boys, matches.

With the stem ox – the form of the 'plural' morpheme is – en /-n/.

In the opposite man–men the form of the 'plural' morpheme is the vowel change /æ > e/. In woman – women ii is /u > i/, in foot – feet it is /u – i:/, etc.

In child – children the form of the 'plural' morpheme is complicated. It consists of the vowel change /ai > i/ and the suffix – ren.

In sheep – sheep the 'plural' is not marked, thus coinciding in form with the 'singular'. They can be distinguished only by their combinability: ‘one sheep’, ‘five sheep’, ‘a sheep was…’, ‘sheep were…’, ‘this sheep’, ‘these sheep’. The 'plural' coincides in form with the 'singular' also in ‘deer, fish, carp, perch, trout, cod, salmon’, etc.[3]

All the 'plural' forms enumerated here are forms of the same morpheme. This can be proved, as we know, by the identity of the 'plural' meaning, and the complementary distribution of these forms, i.e. the fact that different forms are used with different stems.


English nouns fall into two subclasses: countable and uncountable. The former have number opposites, the latter have not. Uncountable nouns are again subdivided into those having no plural opposites and those having no singular opposites.

Nouns like milk, geometry, self-possession having no plural opposites are usually called by a Latin name – singularia tantum. Nouns like outskirts, clothes, goods having no singular opposites are known as pluralia tantum.




As a matter of fact, those nouns which have no number opposites are outside the grammatical category of number. But on the analogy of the bulk of English nouns they acquire oblique (or lexicon-grammatical) meanings of number. Therefore singularia tantum are often treated as singulars and pluralia tantum as plurals.

This is justified both by their forms and by their combinability.

Cf. This (table, book, milk, love) is…

These (tables, books, clothes, goods) are…

When combinability and form contradict each other, combinability is decisive, which accounts for the fact that ‘police’ or ‘cattle’ are regarded as plurals, and ‘measles’, ‘mathematics’ as singulars.

The lexicon-grammatical meaning of a class (or of a subclass) of words is, as we know, an abstraction from the lexical meanings of the words of the class, and depends to a certain extent on those lexical meanings. Therefore singularia tantum usually include nouns of certain lexical meanings. They are mostly material, abstract and collective nouns, such as sugar, gold, butter, brilliance, constancy, selfishness, humanity, soldiery, peasantry.

Yet it is not every material, abstract or collective noun that belongs to the group of singularia tantum (e. g. a plastic, a feeling, a crowd) and, what is more important, not in all of its meanings does a noun belong to this group.

Variants of the same lexeme may belong to different subclasses of a part of speech. In most of their meanings the words joy and sorrow as abstract nouns are singularia tantum.

E.g. He has been a good friend both in joy and in sоrгоw.

But when concrete manifestations are meant, these nouns are countable and have plural opposites, e. g. the joys and sorrows of life.

Likewise, the words copper, tin, hair as material nouns are usually singularia tantum, but when they denote concrete objects, they become countable and get plural opposites: a copper – coppers, a tin – tins, a hair – hairs.

Similarly, when the nouns wine, steel, salt denote some sort or variety of the substance, they become countable.



E.g. an expensive wine – expensive wines.

All such cases are not a peculiarity of the English language alone. They are found in other languages as well. Cf. дерево – деревья and дерево.is a material noun, платье – платья and платье as a collective noun.

‘Joy’ and ‘a joy’, ‘beauty’ and ‘a beauty’, ‘copper’ and ‘a copper’, ‘hair’ and ‘a hair’ and many other pairs of this kind are not homonyms, as suggested by some grammarians, but variants of lexemes related by internal conversion.

If all such cases were regarded as homonyms, the number of homonyms in the English language would be practically limitless. If only some of them were treated as homonyms, that would give rise to uncontrolled subjectivity.

The group of pluralia tantum is mostly composed of nouns denoting objects consisting of two or more parts, complex phenomena or ceremonies, e. g. tongs, pincers, trousers, nuptials, obsequies. Here also belong some nouns with a distinct collective or material meaning, e.g. clothes, eaves, sweets.

Since in these words the – s suffix does not function as a grammatical morpheme, it gets lexicalized and develops into an inseparable part of the stem [7]. This, probably, underlies the fact that such nouns as mathematics, optics, linguistics, mumps, measles are treated as singularia tantum.

Nouns like police, militia, cattle, poultry are pluralia tantum, judging by their combinability, though not by form.

People in the meaning of «народ» is a countable noun. In the meaning of «люди» it belongs to the pluralia tantum. Family in the sense of «a group of people who are related» is a countable noun. In the meaning of «individual members of this group» it belongs to the pluralia tantum. Thus, the lexeme family has two variants:

Sg. PL

1) family families

2) – family

E. g. Almost every family in the village has sent a man to the army.

Those were the oldest families in Jorkshire.

Her family were of a delicate constitution.


Similar variants are observed in the lexemes committee, government, board, crew, etc.

Colour in the meaning «red, green, blue, etc». is a countable noun. In the meaning «appearance of reality or truth» (e. g. His torn clothes gave colour to his story that lie had been attacked by robbers. A. Horney.) it has no plural opposite and belongs to the singularia tantum. Colours in the sense of «materials used by painters and artists» has no singular opposite and belongs to the pluralia tantum.

Thus, the lexeme has three variants:

Sg. Pl.

1) colour colours

2) colour –

3) – colours.

When grammarians write that the lexical meanings of some plurals differ from those of their singular opposites they simply compare different variants of a lexeme.

Sometimes variants of a lexeme may belong to the same lexico-grammatical subclass and yet have different forms of number opposemes.

fish – fish (e.g. I caught five fish yesterday.)

fish – fishes ('different species', e. g. ocean fishes).

A collective noun is a word that designates a group of objects or beings regarded as a whole, such as «flock», «team», or «corporation». Although many languages treat collective nouns as singular, in others they may be interpreted as plural. In British English, phrases such as the committee are meeting are common (the so-called agreement in sensu «in meaning», that is, with the meaning of a noun, rather than with its form). The use of this type of construction varies with dialect and level of formality.

All languages are able to specify the quantity of referents. They may do so by lexical means with words such as English a few, some, one, two, five hundred. However, not every language has a grammatical category of number. Grammatical number is expressed by morphological and/or syntactic means. That is, it is indicated by certain grammatical elements, such as through affixes or number words. Grammatical number may be thought of as the indication of semantic number through grammar.


The semantic nature of the difference between singular and plural may present some difficulties of interpretation.


On the surface of semantic relations, the meaning of the singular will be understood as simply "one", as opposed to the meaning of the plural as "many" in the sense of "more than one". This is apparently obvious for such correlations as bookbooks, lakelakes and the like. However, alongside of these semantically unequivocal correlations, there exist plurals and singulars that cannot be fully accounted for by the above ready-made approach. This becomes clear when we take for comparison such forms as tear (one drop falling from the eye) and tears (treacles on the cheeks as tokens of grief or joy), potato (one item of the vegetables) and potatoes (food), paper (material) and papers (notes or documents), sky (the vault of heaven) and skies (the same sky taken as a direct or figurative background), etc. As a result of the comparison we conclude that the broader sememic mark of the plural, or "plurality" in the grammatical sense, should be described as the potentially dismembering reflection of the structure of the referent, while the sememic mark of the singular will be understood as the non-dismembering reflection of the structure of the referent, i.e. the presentation of the referent in its indivisible entireness.


On the other hand, there are semantic varieties of the plural forms that differ from one another in their plural quality as such. Some distinctions may be seen in a variety of other cases. Here belong, for example, cases where the plural form expresses a definite set of objects {eyes of the face, wheels of the vehicle, etc.), various types of the referent {wines, tees, steels), intensity of the presentation of the idea {years and years, thousands upon thousands), picturesqueness {sands, waters, snows).

The category of number is one of the regular variable categories in the grammatical system of he English language. The variability of the category is simply given in its form, i.e. in the forms of the bulk of English nouns which do distinguish it by means of the described binary paradigm. As for the differences in meaning, these arise from the interaction between the underlying oppositional sememic marks of the category and the more concrete lexical differences in the semantics of individual words.

The most general quantitative characteristics of individual words constitute the lexico-grammatical base for dividing the nounal vocabulary as a whole into countable nouns and uncountable nouns. The constant categorial feature "quantitative structure" (see Ch. V, §3) is directly connected with the variable feature "number", since uncountable nouns are treated grammatically as either singular or plural. Namely, the singular uncountable nouns are modified by the non-discrete quantifiers much or little, and they take the finite verb in the singular, while the plural uncountable nouns take the finite verb in the plural.


The two subclasses of uncountable nouns are usually referred to, respectively, as singularia tantum (only singular) and pluralia tantum (only plural). In terms of oppositions we may say that in the formation of the two subclasses of uncountable nouns the number opposition is "constantly" (lexically) reduced either to the weak member (singularia tantum) or to the strong member (pluralia tantum).

Since the grammatical form of the uncountable nouns of the singularia tantum subclass is not excluded from the category of number, it stands to reason to speak of it as the "absolute" singular, as different from the "correlative" or "common" singular of the countable nouns. The absolute singular excludes the use of the modifying numeral one, as well as the indefinite article.

The absolute singular is characteristic of the names of abstract notions {peace, love, joy, courage, friendship, etc.), the names of the branches of professional activity {chemistry, architecture, mathematics, linguistics, etc.), the names of mass-materials {water, snow, steel, hair, etc.), the names of collective inanimate objects {foliage, fruit, furniture, machinery, etc.). Some of these words can be used in the form of the common singular with the common plural counterpart, but in this case they come to mean either different sorts of materials, or separate concrete manifestations of the qualities denoted by abstract nouns, or concrete objects exhibiting the respective qualities.

Joy is absolutely necessary for normal human life.— It was a joy to see her among us. Helmets for motor-cycling are nowadays made of plastics instead of steel. —Using different modifications of the described method, super-strong steels are produced for various purposes.

Common number with uncountable singular nouns can also be expressed by means of combining them with words showing discreteness, such as bit, piece, item, sort.

In the sphere of the plural we must recognize the common plural form as the regular feature of countability, and the absolute plural form peculiar to the uncountable subclass of pluralia tantum nouns. The absolute plural, as different from the common plural, cannot directly combine with numerals, and only occasionally does it combine with discrete quantifiers (many, few, etc.).

The absolute plural is characteristic of the uncountable nouns which denote objects consisting of two halves (trousers, scissors, tongs, spectacles, etc.), the nouns expressing some sort of collective meaning, i.e. rendering the idea of indefinite plurality, both concrete and abstract (supplies, outskirts, clothes, parings; tidings, earnings, contents, politics; police, cattle, poultry, etc.), the nouns denoting some diseases as well as some abnormal states of the body and mind (measles, rickets, mumps, creeps, hysterics, etc.). As is seen from the examples, from the point of view of number as such, the absolute plural forms can be divided into set absolute plural (objects of two halves) and non-set absolute plural (the rest).


The set plural can also be distinguished among the common plural forms, namely, with nouns denoting fixed sets of objects, such as eyes of the face, legs of the body, legs of the table, wheels of the vehicle, funnels of the steamboat, windows of the room, etc.


The necessity of expressing definite numbers in cases of uncountable pluralia tantum nouns, as well as in cases of countable nouns denoting objects in fixed sets, has brought about different suppletive combinations specific to the plural form of the noun, which exist alongside of the suppletive combinations specific to the singular form of the noun.


The absolute plural, by way of functional oppositional reduction, can be represented in countable nouns having the form of the singular, in uncountable nouns having the form of the plural, and also in countable nouns having the form of the plural.

The first type of reduction, consisting in the use of the absolute plural with countable nouns in the singular form, concerns collective nouns, which are thereby changed into "nouns of multitude".
- The family were gathered round the table.

- The government are unanimous in disapproving the move of the opposition.

This form of the absolute plural may be called "multitude plural".

The second type of the described oppositional reduction, consisting in the use of the absolute plural with uncountable nouns in the plural form, concerns cases of stylistic marking of nouns. Thus, the oppositional reduction results in expressive transposition. Cf.: the sands of the desert; the snows of the Arctic; the waters of the ocean; the fruits of the toil; etc,

This variety of the absolute plural may be called "descriptive uncountable plural".


The third type of oppositional reduction concerns common countable nouns used in repetition groups. The acquired implication is indefinitely large quantity intensely presented. The nouns in repetition groups may themselves be used either in the plural ("featured" form) or in the singular ("unfeatured" form).
- There were trees and trees all around us. I lit cigarette after cigarette.

This variety of the absolute plural may be called "repetition plural". It can be considered as a peculiar analytical form in the marginal sphere of the category of number.

Plural and singular nouns stand in contrast as diametrically opposite. Instances are not few, however, when their opposition comes to be neutralised. And this is to say that there are cases when the numeric differentiation appears to be of no importance at all. Here belong many collective abstract and material nouns. If, for instance, we look at

the meaning of collective nouns, we cannot fail to see that they denote at the same

time a plurality and a unit. They may be said to be doubly countables and thus from a logical point of view form the exact contrast to mass nouns: they are, in fact, at the same time singular and plural, while mass words are logically neither.

The dual nature of collective nouns is shown linguistically in various ways: by the number of the verb or by the pronoun referring to it, as for instance, My family are early risers, they are already here. Cf. My family is not large.

It is important to observe that the choice between singular and plural depends on the meaning attached to the noun. Compare also: We have much fruit this year and The rich fruits of the heroic labour of Soviet people are visible from all the corners of the earth.

A word should be said about stylistic transpositions of singular nouns in cases like the following: trees in leaf, to have a keen eye, blue of eye, strong of muscle.Patterns of this kind will exemplify synecdoche — the simplest case of metonymy in grammar ("pars pro toto").

Other "universals" in expressing plurality will be found in what may be called "augmentative" plurals, i. e. when the plural forms of material nouns are used to denote large amounts of substance, or a high degree of something. This is often the case when we see the matter as it exists in nature. Such plural forms are often used for stylistic purposes in literary prose and poetry, e. g.: the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the sands of the Sahara Desert, the snows of Kilimanjaro.

It should be noted that the plural form is sometimes used not only for emphasis in pictorial language but to intensify the aspective meaning of the verb, the iterative character of the action, in particular.

Unproductive archaic elements are sometimes used to create the atmosphere of elevated speech.

Morphological variation will be found in nouns foreign in origin. Through the natural process of assimilation some borrowed nouns have developed parallel native forms, as in:

formulaformulae, formulas terminustermini, terminuses focusfoci, focuses stratumstrata, stratums



Foreign plurals are decidedly more bookish than the native ones.

For all the details concerning the grammatical organisation of nouns and their patterning in different kind of structures students are referred to the text-books on English grammar. Two things should be noted here.

It is important to observe that in certain contexts nouns can weaken their meaning of "substance" and approach adjectives thus making the idea of qualities of the given substance predominant in the speaker's mind. Nouns functioning in this position are generally modified by adverbials of degree, e. g.:

"Why had he ever been fool enough to see her again";

The use of a noun rather than an adjective is very often preferred as a more forcible expressive means to intensify the given quality.

He was quite a success. — He was quite successful.

It was good fun. — It was funny.

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