8

In English, when you use "no" or "zero" to indicate a lack of something, the noun is plural:

I have no horses. There are no houses for sale. This costs zero dollars.

How common is this across the world's languages?

In English, we're basically saying that 0 is expressed with the plural, 1 with the singular, and 2+ with the plural. I could easily imagine a language that expressed 0 and 1 with the singular, but I don't know how common such behavior is.

      English  │ ???      │ Mandarin
 ───┬──────────┼──────────┼─────────────┐
  0 │ plural   │          │             │
 ───┼──────────┤ singular │             │
  1 │ singular │          │ unspecified │
 ───┼──────────┼──────────┤             │
 2+ │ plural   │ plural   │             │
 ───┴──────────┴──────────┴─────────────┘
  • For some examples scroll to the bottom of this page: doc.qt.digia.com/qq/qq19-plurals.html There are more complete listing, however I don't seem to find them right now. German uses singlar for 0 and 1, and plural for higher numbers: kein Haus, ein Haus, zwei Häuser. – Hyperboreus Apr 23 '15 at 17:35
  • "There is no water in that glass". "No man is an island". Plural, eh? – fdb Apr 23 '15 at 17:46
  • "no water" doesn't apply, as "water" is a non-countable noun here. "No man" raises a more interesting question. – Joe Apr 23 '15 at 17:48
  • But in general, English does in fact have a rule about zero using the plural. Consider "I have _ chicken(s)." -- it's plural for 0 and 2+, but singular for 1. – Joe Apr 23 '15 at 17:49
  • The German "rule" posited by @Hyperboreus is also wrong. You can say "kein Haus" or "keine Häuser". – fdb Apr 23 '15 at 17:52
4

The assumption concerning English is simply wrong when applied to no:

I have no horses. There are no houses for sale.

I have no horse. There is no house for sale.

Quite logically, singular or plural is used according to whether the sentence negates a singular or plural.

What is true, though, is that only the plural works with the number zero. This is by the same principle by which the plural is used with 0.7, 1.2 etc. It's not impossible that some language might use the plural for -1, 0.2, 1.5, 2, 3 etc. but the singular for 0 in addition to 1, but I don't think it's very likely.

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  • I actually say -1 houses in English. For me it's exactly +1 or use plural. – user0721090601 Apr 24 '15 at 11:08
  • 1
    @guifa, I never heard talking about negative houses, but -1° is usually pronounced as "minus 1 degree". Also, ±21, 101, 4321 etc require singular both in English and many other languages. – J-mster Apr 24 '15 at 12:16
  • @J-mster I would likewise say "minus 1 degree", but I would say "negative one degrees". – user0721090601 Apr 24 '15 at 12:33
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    @J-mster, 101 uses the plural in English: "He has 101 cans of paint." not "He has 101 can of paint." – Joe Nov 6 '15 at 1:31
3

Russian has, probably, the most interesting schema:

    0 - Plural
    1 - Singular
2,3,4 - Dual
 5-20 - Plural
   21 - Singular  
22-24 - Dual
25-30 - Plural 

...

The genral rule is to check on what digit the number ends:

    1 - Singular
  2-4 - Dual
5-9,0 - Plural

E.g.

  12345 - Plural
  54321 - Singular

In case of long numbers we have to switch from singular/dual/plural, e.g. a phrase "123 451 789 words": would be

  сто двадцать три миллиона       («миллион» - million - in dual) 
  четыреста пятьдесят одна тысяча («тысяча» - thousand - in singular)
  семьсот восемьдесят девять слов («слово» - word - in plural)
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  • 1
    Just to add that 11, 12, 13, and 14 (and numbers that end with these pairs of digits) are exceptions and follow the 5+ pattern, and that Russian lost the dual number a long time ago, and its present function with numerals (which is more like a paucal number, and has many contaminations with the plural and the singular genitive) is its only surviving trace. – Nikolay Ershov Apr 24 '15 at 15:44
2

From wikipedia, (emphasis added):

Treatments differ in expressions of zero quantity: English often uses the plural in such expressions as no injuries and zero points, although no (and zero in some contexts) may also take a singular. In French, the singular form is used after zéro.

And see also here and here.

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1

The form of a noun used with a numeral can vary a lot depending on the language, and it's not always restricted to two options. Some languages, such as Hungarian, use only the singular with all numerals, leaving off the redundant plural marker in this case, but using it on nouns not accompanied by a numeral. Some languages, besides singular and plural forms, might also use a dual or a genitive form with some numerals. The following link about internationalization of software contains discussion of the issue. http://www.gnu.org/software/gettext/manual/html%5Fnode/Plural-forms.html

According to this source, languages that use the singular for one and zero, and the plural for other numerals include French and Brazilian Portuguese.

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  • I think the question was about whether to use singular or plural with the negative, not about constructions with cardinal numbers. – fdb Apr 23 '15 at 19:35

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