03 March 2011

Linguistic Factoid No. 21: Plurality

Languages have mechanisms that allow people to indicate that there are more than one entity that is involved in a given utterance. In English, for example, indicating whether an entity is plural or not is important, important enough to have grammatical markers that do the job. We add -s after a word in most cases, and in other times, the verb form changes whether the subject is singular or plural.

So the interesting question is to find out what are the things and situations that license or allow a construction to be plural. Of course, things will get plural if there are more than one people in which the verb is true.

1. John is reading.
2. John and Mary are reading.

In 1, there is only one person doing the action, while in 2, there are two people doing the action. So is that the criterion, that the entities must be doing the action?

3. The boys are moving the sofa.

Say, the boys are moving the sofa from one apartment to the next. And one of the boys is walking in front of the rest, stopping the traffic so that the rest can cross the street. Can we still say that the sentence in 3 is correct and applies to every boy, even though one of the boys is not actually in touch with the sofa? Some people say that is the case, with collective action.

4. We are building a house.

How about sentence 4? If I say that, with the intention that me and my partner are paying a construction company to build a house so that in the future, we can live in it?

5. We are expecting a child.

Can I say the sentence in 5? What if I am married, and my wife is pregnant, can I say that sentence? Most people think that I can.

6. We are pregnant.

However, most people possibly won't allow me to say 6, if I am the husband and my wife is pregnant.

So yes, there's various ways in which utterances can be plural. Not only on the basis of multiple agents, but also based on collective action and collective responsibility. Of course, this is just English, other languages may have more interesting plural strategies.

(Cuzco's Picasso, from my Modern Art in Cuzco Series)


  1. Chinese doesn't really do plural. There is a "we" and "you" (plural) of course, but "my friend" is the same as "my friends". A lot is learned from the context.

  2. Zhu,

    Somehow I noticed that recently. I actually noticed that by observing some native Chinese speakers speak English, and they consistently drop markers of plurality, because they're still thinking in Chinese which doesn't have these distinctions!