Grammatically Speaking, September 2007

Dear Mr. Firsten,

An English second language student has asked a question that neither I nor colleagues can fully answer. We can say what is right and what isn’t right, but we’re not sufficiently able in this case to explain why and why not.

The student’s question:

The word plural is defined as consisting of, containing, or pertaining to more than one. How about a fractional, decimal, or negative unit of a noun? 
Example: One/a degree, two degrees. Those are no problem.

How about 1.1 degrees, 0.5 degrees, a half (or 1/2) degrees (?), 1.0 degree (?), 0 degrees (?), -3.5 degrees, -1 degrees
Are they right?

We suggested that the answer might lie in countable and uncountable nouns. This is a real conundrum for us. Why do people say, for example, It’s zero degrees Celsius when zero is not a plural form?

Thank you.

Carolyn Samuel
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Dear Ms. Samuel:

Let’s start with zero degrees. In this case, zero is another way to say the negative determiners no or any. As such, they can be used with a singular countable noun (no train/any train) or in a more general observation with a plural countable noun (no trains/any trains). You can say The thermometer registers no degrees or The thermometer doesn’t register any degrees. By extension, people also use the word zero or the number 0: The thermometer registers zero/0 degrees.

As for every fraction or decimal above or below one, you use the plural noun. People have a sense that if something is more than one, even if only a fraction more, it should be pluralized: ± 1.1 degrees/1¼ miles.

The one aberration, if I can call it that, is when you write a decimal under one plus a noun such as degree (0.5°). Even in such a case you still use a plural noun and say zero point five degrees. When written as a fraction, however (½°), you use a singular noun and can say this in a variety of ways: a half a degree/a half of a degree/half a degree/half of a degree.

For the most part, then, the most important points are that when you use zero + a noun or have a fraction or decimal together with one + a noun, you make the noun plural.

Thank you for a great question, Ms. Samuel!

Dear Mr. Firsten:

A student in my advanced ESOL class was having a conversation with a colleague of mine about the horrible situation in Darfur. When my student asked exactly where Darfur is located in the Sudan, my colleague corrected him and said it was Sudan, not the Sudan. My student asked me which is correct since he was sure he had heard people say the Sudan. I know I’ve heard both ways of saying the name, too, but I really don’t know what to tell him. I hope you can straighten this out for us.

Grace Harding
Ithaca, NY USA

Dear Ms. Harding:

Your colleague was right. Nowadays the name of the country is Sudan, not the Sudan. This goes along with two other well-known changes of this type: Ukraine and Yemen. Years ago they were referred to as the Ukraine and the Yemen.

Why the change? It’s because the definite article is normally used when designating a territory or an area rather than a country. That’s why we can still say the Yukon, the Yucatan,and the Hague. Places like Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen consider themselves as full-fledged countries--which they are--so they don’t want the definite article attached to their names any longer. In fact, the only time to use the definite article in the name of a country correctly is when the name includes a common noun: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Dominican Republic.

Thank you for this "PC" question, Ms. Harding!

Dear Richard,

Here’s a quickie. When talking about that indispensable part of a computer in the plural, do you say mice or mouses? None of us at my school can decide which it is!

Aidan O’Roarke
Grand Rapids, MI USA

Dear Aidan,

There is a tendency in English to change an irregular plural noun back to a regular plural form when that noun takes on a secondary meaning that it never used to have. For example, the Canadian hockey team is known as the Maple Leafs, not the Maple Leaves. When talking about people of ill repute, we refer to them as low-lifes, not low-lives. This seems to be the way the word mouse is heading when it refers to the computer tool instead of the animal. Even though this has not been set in stone yet, the more accepted plural of computer mouse seems to be computer mouses.

(I bet a lot of readers are saying, "Aha!" right about now.)

Thanks for that question, which I’m sure has been on lots of people’s minds at one time or another.

Hey, Richard!

Okay, I know this isn’t grammar per se, but it’s one of those minor things that’s annoyed me for the longest time. Sometimes I see awhile, but other times I see a while. Are they both correct? Is there any difference? I’ve never been able to figure this out, and when I ask people, I get a blank stare from them. Help!

Love your column, by the way.

Phil Sarkisian
Lima, Peru

I can easily understand your annoyance, Phil. It’s little things like this that can really get to you. Well, the answer isn’t complicated at all. The simple rule is that

  • if you use this adverbially, write it as one word, awhile (Don’t go so soon. Stay awhile.)
  • if you place a preposition before it, write it as two words, a while (How’s Casey? I haven’t seen him in a while.).

There you go, Phil.

Brain Teaser

Here’s the Brain Teaser from my June 2007 column: What role does over play in the following sentences?

He went over to his friend’s house.
They flew over to Bimini.
She ran over to the grocery before it closed.

The first acceptable answer was sent in by Carol Ann Edington in Sapporo, Japan:

The over in these sentences implies geographical proximity. Even in the second sentence using flew over, the assumption is that Bimini is not far from where the flight originated.

For that reason, I could say, "Come over sometime," to a friend living in my neighborhood or city. However, the invitation would be strange if the friend were living in a different prefecture (state or province).

That’s precisely the reason for using over in those sentences, Carol Ann. And your explanation couldn’t be clearer! Thank you very much.

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

What role does should play in the following sentence, and what is this use of should called?

We were shocked that he should want to drop out of college.

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33127 USA

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