the language of more-than-one

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

the english language is famous for many things, most of them bad. it is evolutionary and cumbersome. it has tense, number, gender, myriad useless pronouns, more punctuation than it needs by many times, impossible spelling because it doesn’t really follow rules and borrows from multiple simultaneous writing systems and an alphabet that makes slightly less sense than trying to see patterns in the clouds.

possibly the most stupid thing english does, though, it shares with most other western languages, though none of the modern eastern ones. it differentiates between one and not-one. not one and many. just one and not-one.

it’s the singular-plural divide and it shows up in english, french, german, spanish, arabic, farsi, urdu and even most african and early-mesoamerican languages. but it doesn’t show up in korean, japanese, chinese or vietnamese.

so if you are starting to wonder if i’ve gone crazy by thinking english (and other languages) doesn’t need plurals because it would be so confusing without them, remember a third of the world speaks languages that simply don’t use this marker in any meaningful way and it doesn’t stop them from communicating effectively. if you don’t already agree with me, i suggest two billion people not needing something is probably a good reason to at least ask the question of whether it’s necessary — or, if not whether it’s necessary, whether it’s worth all the effort and complexity pluralization causes in english — and, to be fair, all the other languages it appears in as it’s never simple in any i’ve studied, despite the fact that it could very easily be.

plurals are generally formed in english by adding the letter “s” to the end of a noun. but that’s not all that has to happen to make this shift. the verb usually changes — from singular to plural.

  • the child runs. (singular)
  • the children run. (plural)

english has a number-neutral pronoun, though. in addition to number-specific pronouns.

  • he talks. (singular)
  • she talks. (singular)
  • it talks. (singular)
  • they talk. (number-independent but uses the plural verb)

so what’s the purpose of plural?

well, practically-speaking it doesn’t have one. it differentiates between whether a thing is an individual (a book) or more than one (books) and that sounds, at first glance, extremely-useful. but how many books are there? is there a situation where you would find it useful to be aware of there being more-than-one but not find it useful to know how many there are, at least in a general sense?

so what we really need is a way to quickly differentiate between “few” and “many” or, at least, between “one” and “many” rather than “one” and “not-one”. i’ll give you an example.

  • there is a book on the desk. (one)
  • there are books on the desk. (not-one)
  • there is either a book on the desk or two, perhaps even three books. (few)
  • there are many books on the desk. (many)

this second differentiation is extremely useful but the first is rarely significant. if you’re going to cook rice, you don’t care whether it’s one grain or two. you care whether it’s one or a hundred. when your bookcase has books, you don’t differentiate between one book and two. it’s a small number or a large number.

there are very few situations where the important difference comes between one and two. they certainly exist — i am going to meet one friend, not two. but this is no more important than the difference between two and three — i am going to meet two friends, not three. and this is where the key to the issue actually lies — the fact that when the division between one and two is important we already have a marker in the sentence telling us about that difference. it’s not the plural noun or verb that matters and that just makes the whole grammar more complex for absolutely no reason.

  • i am going to meet a / one (noun).
  • i am going to meet two (noun).
  • i am going to meet three (noun).

there is nothing confusing about these three sentences. the noun doesn’t need to be singular or plural to differentiate.

in the same way, this applies to verb conjugation.

  • one girl (verb) on the bench.
  • two girls (verb) on the bench.
  • three girls (verb) on the bench.

while i have used the singular/plural versions of the noun, the noun is irrelevant to the distinction. the first word in each sentence has already told us all the information we need. by the time we get to the verb, it doesn’t matter — we already know how many girls there are.

while verb-conjugation in english as a whole is cumbersome and unnecessary (a thought for another article), it is unhelpful in showing number because the number is always there anyway.

if we need to differentiate “one” from “not-one”, we already have a word for that in english without needing to modify nouns or verbs — “some”. specifying vague quantities is already easy without needing singular/plural modifiers, too — “few” and “many” are simple words that require no grammatical changes to a sentence.

the answer is very clear. western languages simply don’t need pluralization any more than east-asian languages. this is something that, in a sensible system, would have evolved itself out of existence centuries ago simply because it is unnecessary and unhelpful. we’ve developed other pieces in the language that communicate this information in far simpler ways — like numbers and generalization terms for quantity like “few”, “many”, “a lot”, “some”, “multiple” and “various”.

why does this singular/plural division persist in english? simply tradition and resistance to change. we adopt new words all the time and grammar has been shifting for centuries — and very quickly for the last four or five decades. but this hasn’t disappeared yet because people are so resistant to changing a fundamental piece of the language. we need to stop being so precious and anal about it, though. there is no need for this and all it does is confuse children and foreign language-learners. it makes our sentences more complex than they need to be and it takes english-speakers longer to say something than it should because these modifiers are present in almost every sentence.

there are many things about english that need to be modernized and simplified to turn it into a truly useful, contemporary language. this is only a tiny part of that necessary shift but it’s a simple, small thing that could be adopted with no real change in the rest of the language. if all verbs were only used in their singular forms and all plural markers removed, english could continue to function the same as it has been for years and nothing else would be different. many english verbs don’t even have different forms by number for past and future — “the boy went to the market” and “the boys went to the market”. so the shift is less significant than you might imagine and far less difficult to adopt.

let’s take at least a single step in the direction of improving this backward and endlessly-overcomplicated language with a silly name (the dominant form of modern spoken english isn’t even from england — it would be like calling “spanish” “cuban” or “french” “alsatian”. if you’ve never thought about plurals as irrelevant, next time you use a singular noun in a sentence, ask the question — would i know how many of these there were if not for the verb or the end of the noun? i bet you would. i suspect every time you use a word like “table” or “chair” you put a number word with it like “a” or “five”. perhaps it’s time for us to notice the redundancy of our language.

i hope this has been a fun short stroll through the idea of modernization and simplification. may your words taste beautiful today. be at peace.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.