by T. Leo Schmitt
If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to email@example.com We welcome all types of language questions.
This month's question:
Dear Mr. Schmitt
I wonder why we say “Zero degreeS Celcius” though zero is less than one. Why is [degrees] in the plural form? (E.g., It is zero degreeS in London.)
Thanks a lot,
Thank you for the question, Ismael.
Traditional Grammatical Explanation
Although some languages have more complex grammatical numbering systems, English essentially has only two: singular and plural. The term plural in everyday parlance has the meaning of more than one, but grammatically it may be worth calling them singular and nonsingular. The singular is used to indicate that there is one and only one of the noun. The nonsingular is used when there is more than one of the object. Thus we have “I saw a man pursuing the horizon” to indicate that there is only one man, whereas “When I was in London, I saw men in suits who had stainless steel rings around their arms” indicates that there was more than one man wearing these rings. This is straightforward enough, even with the occasional irregular nonsingular like man-men or tooth-teeth.
Your question addresses the interesting issue of how to deal with the absence of something with the number zero. English generally treats the absence of something general as a plural or nonsingular case. This is usually introduced by a negative construction such as no, or not. Thus, we say “There are no atheists in foxholes” and “It's not that I don't have problems, I'm just not putting them on Facebook.” That is not to say that we cannot express these ideas singly. We could grammatically say “There is not an atheist in a foxhole.” or “It is not that I do not have a problem.” However, these imply that we are discussing a single atheist or a specific problem. Negatives can be quite complicated, but there seems to be a strong general preference for pluralization in these cases.
This brings us to the question of zero. Zero is a mathematical concept indicating none or the absence of something. It is therefore not surprising that it is often treated as a nonsingular. The fact that zero is less than one should not divert us into thinking that it should be singular. Even if we do not apply the concept of absence described above, we should note that although the nonsingular is applied to numbers more than one, it is also applied to numbers less than one as well. It is for this reason that I am referring to the “plural” as nonsingular. Thus we say that the temperature is fourteen degrees below zero or It’s minus fourteen celcius degrees out there (when you are in cold climates that have a harsher winter than the one we have just experienced in North America!) Thus we could focus on the grammatical singular as restricted to one rather than on the plural (nonsingular) as defined by more than one.
Also note that although this is a nonsingular in that it takes an s, Celsius is a form of measurement. It therefore would interact somewhat differently in its grammatical position. For example, as a subject, it would not take a nonsingular verb. This is a common attribute of sums in English, which are generally considered as a single entity for purposes of verb agreement. Thus we say “Do you think that five dollars is too much for shipping?” or “Twenty degrees is perfect for us.” The whole issue of number is nowhere near as clear-cut as we might like it to be and anomalies continue to challenge us.
This should be fairly straightforward for students to master. I would suggest emphasizing that one represents singular and the nonsingular represents all other cases as a general rule. When dealing with measurements such as zero degrees, this follows the rule.
The negative noted above is where there may be confusion. Again, the preference is usually for nonsingular when talking generally. When talking about a specific single instance, then obviously a singular is called for because we are talking about one item. I hope to address the more complicated negation issues in a future column.
The word zero entered the English language from Arabic via Italian in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. The mathematical concept of zero, which entered Western European thought centuries earlier, had a profound influence on science and was a key part of the transition from old Roman numerals to our current Arabic numeral system. While nothing and related words existed, they were not combined with measurements in the same way that zero could be. This allowed phrases such as “zero degrees,” “zero stars” (as in ratings), and “zero calories.” Indeed, those are probably the most frequent combinations of zero with a measurement. However, as with no in “no problem,” there are certainly situations where we might use zero with a singular noun, such as “zero tolerance” or “zero risk.”
We can speculate that English incorporated the number zero into its preference for using the nonsingular to mark absence, or it could be that singular is restricted to one and only one, but other than that, it is hard to definitively say why we make the language choices we do.
Last Month’s Brain Teaser:
Look at the following sentences. They are both grammatically correct. How would you explain how each of these is used and what the grammatical rules behind them are?
They are clearly shells.
They are clear shells.
The For "They are clearly shells," clearly is an adverb meaning obviously, beyond question\doubt. The adverb modifies the verb are, telling to what degree\extent they are shells.
For "They are clear shells," clear is an adjective telling us what kind of shells they are. The adjective modifies the noun shells.
Tommy Morgan, The American University of Kuwait, Kuwait
Thank you, Tommy, for your answer. As you note, the former uses an adverb and the latter uses an adjective. The adverb modifies the clause, telling us the extent to which it is true. (I.e., the fact that they are shells is clear.) On the other hand, the adjective modifies the noun shell, giving us more information about that specific thing. (I.e., that it is clear.)
This Month’s Brain Teaser:
Look at the two example sentences below. Explain what grammatical holdover they illustrate and suggest how a teacher might teach this to a language class.
- Here's why working at home is both a curse and a blessing.
- In particular, Biden cited the billions of dollars in government financial support for U.S. automakers during the recession as an example of the differing approaches between the parties.
The first correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking in July 2012.
Please e-mail your responses to GrammaticallySpeaking@tesol.org.
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Note that example sentences listed in this column are from actual usage and not the author’s creations.