Plural marking

Östen Dahl oesten at LING.SU.SE
Thu Nov 12 10:19:41 UTC 1998

Listening to an astronomy lecture yesterday, I became aware of the existence
of English examples like the following (found on the Internet):

"The proton has a wavelength of about ten to the minus twelfth centimeters
while an electron has a resonant wavelength of ten to the minus eighth."

"There is the fact that when sub atomic particles are smashed together in
cyclotrons, they do not start to break apart when they touch each other,
they start to break apart when they are approximately ten to the minus
thirty fifth centimeters away from each other"

The head noun of the noun phrase "ten to the minus twelfth centimeters" is
marked as plural, although the referent of the noun phrase is not a plural
object in the sense of a set with more than one member but rather denotes a
fraction of a quantity. The reasonable explanation is that plural marking is
grammaticalized in the context of numerals. In some languages, one says
"twenty-one book" rather than "twenty-one books", showing that number
marking is here a question of agreement with the numeral rather than of

Such examples are a reminder that even in a language like English plural
marking should not necessarily be seen as obligatorily applying to a
God-given (that is, semantically defined) domain. Morphological categories
like number tend to be at least partly triggered by various idiosyncratic
features of the context.

Also, what should be treated as a plural referent is partly governed by
language-specific conventions. Distributive contexts are a case in point.
Edit Moravcsik's literal translation of a Hungarian example, "The men have
hat", yields perfect Swedish when transferred word by word: "Männen har
hatt", although Swedish normally agrees with English in the use of plural
marking. I have noticed that Russians tend to say things like "I have never
seen such handsome men" rather than "I have never seen such a handsome man"
even if they are looking at a single exemplar.

- Östen Dahl
oesten at

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