Number marking in English

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Nov 11 15:29:57 UTC 1998

On my comments, yesterday, on English number marking, and the reactions
by Alan and Frans.

Alan concludes his message:

> Interesting, but I don't think it affects the overall argument at all.

Actually, I was trying, with the English examples, to *support* what I
took to be Alan's main point, namely that "optionality" in number
marking needs to be decomposed along several independent parameters.

I must confess that I fail to see why the mass/count distinction is
irrelevant to the discussion.  It clearly provides for a categorization
of English nouns into two classes which behave differently with respect
to number marking, one of the two classes often remaining unmarked for
number.  And -- in response to Alan's questions -- it clearly is a
parameter along which languages may vary.  Some of this variation is
probably rather idiosyncratic.  But much of it is in fact systematic,
following a specific "animacy" hierarchy, as pointed out by Smith-Stark
and recently much elaborated upon by Grev Corbett.  For example, there
are languages where number marking is only possible for animates, or
only for humans, or only for a subset of important humans.  Surely, the
fact that in such languages a word such as "table" isn't marked for
number is relevant to a discussion of ways in which number marking can
fail to be obligatory across languages.  And if this is true for "table"
in, say, Mandarin, why should it not also be true for "furniture" in

Or for that matter for nouns denoting homogeneous substances such as
"gold" or "water".  Alan asks:

> Is it universal (in languages with number marking, I mean) for some
> to behave like this, or at least for a subset of nouns to be
invariable for
> number?  As far as I know it may well be, though I don't dispose of
> empirical evidence.

Let's take Tagalog.  Tagalog came up earlier in this thread as an
example of a language with general number (ie. a bare noun can be
understood as either singular and plural) but no numeral classifiers.
However, Tagalog does have a marker of plurality, "mga".  (Although
written as a separate word, there is evidence from ludlings that it is
perhaps better analyzed as a proclitic.)  Now what's interesting about
this form is that although it occurs relatively infrequently on nouns of
high countability preference, it actually occurs equally readily on
nouns of low countability preference, such as "tubig" ("water").  So
with regard to number marking, Tagalog doesn't distinguish between nouns
of high and low countability preference.

As an example, imagine the following situation.  We're on our way to a
picnic, and suddenly, somebody wonders whether we remembered to bring
along the bottles of drinking water.  In English you might say:

(1) Have we brought the water / ?*waters along?

But in Tagalog the plural "mga tubig" would be quite natural here:

(2) Dinala na ba natin ang mga tubig?
    carry-PFV:PT PFCT YNQ NON.TOP:we:INCL TOP PL water

So from a Tagalog perspective, it's even a little bit odd that you can't
say "waters" here in English.  Though of course in many other contexts
you can.  Imagine a waiter taking orders for drinks, and shouting back
to the kitchen:

(3) One apple juice, two cokes, and three waters

And this is before we get to all the other usages of plural marking on
mass nouns:  quantification over kinds, "bridge over troubled waters",
and so forth.  Lots of people have written lots about these
constructions.  My only point here is to say that English mass nouns
also belong in any discussion of optionality in number marking across
the world's languages.  Which is also my answer to Frans':

> What is FURNITURE to do with optional number marking?

And as for Frans' point about agreement (Alan also made the same point):

> On the evidence of agreement, game plurals in English are plurals,
> the zero allomorph for that number, exactly like a few non-game
> such as THESE SHEEP, POLICEMEN, HOVERCRAFT ARE ..., and perhaps
> nationality words such as THOSE SWISS/JAPANESE WERE ... (assuming
> aren't immune to Number being adjectives, sort of).  Number is
*obligatorily* > marked, then.

And "John's sheep died"?  Of course it all depends on how you're
defining "obligatory" and "number" and "marking".  My only point was /
is that even in English the facts about number marking are quite
complex, and lots of different subclasses of nouns and of constructions
need to be defined.  In particular, English has a variety of word
classes and construction types in which overt number marking on the noun
can in fact be lacking.  So to simply assert that "number is
obligatorily marked in English" strikes me as missing out on a lot of
what makes English number marking an interesting object of


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 44-341-9952310
Fax: 44-341-9952119
Email: gil at

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list