In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Number

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Logical Bases of Plurality
  • The Significance of Number for Morphological Theory

Linguistics Number
Paolo Acquaviva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0135


Through the category of number, languages express conceptual oppositions centering on the contrast between “one” and “not-one.” In the most familiar case, this opposes a “singular” form of nouns, referring to individuals, to a “plural” form usually (but not always) referring to collections of individuals. An important task consists, then, in distinguishing nouns that are plural as a grammatical property from others whose meaning is “not-one,” like mass nouns or collectives. Some languages have other non-singular values, like “dual” or “paucal.” In this function, number specifies nouns, and affects other lexical categories by agreement; in addition, some languages display an inherently verbal number, which specifies verbs as true of individual or multiple events. Variation is great, as many languages lack number altogether, while others differ in the array of number values, their meaning, their applicability across the lexicon, and their syntactic and morphological properties. One major strand of research aims at describing this typology and accounting for it in terms of universal principles. Another aims at making explicit the meaning of number-inflected expressions, typically by constructing formal models of their denotation with rigorous mathematical tools. Recent years have seen an increasing convergence between the two lines of investigation, complemented by a significant body of work on number within syntactic frameworks, in both a language-specific and a comparative perspective. In addition, a cognitive perspective focuses on the psychological and philosophical bases of the use of grammatical number and numerically quantified expressions. At the intersection of formal semantics and philosophy, the proper regimentation of plurally referring expressions is also an important topic in formal logic. As a linguistic category, then, number has syntactic, semantic, and morphological dimensions; its interpretation calls for precise formal models based on an appropriate logic; and its use is rooted in the conceptualization of entities, and it relates to fundamental aspects of human cognition.

General Overviews

The comprehensive monograph Corbett 2000 stands out as the single most complete and authoritative survey, very accessible but addressing substantial theoretical issues. Although it does not ignore the formal semantic literature, its perspective is mostly morphological-typological. Several surveys are limited to semantics, and they are listed in the corresponding category. Corbett 2006 provides a convenient summary, within the scope of an encyclopedia entry. From a rather different perspective, Biermann 1982 overviews the relation between conceptualization and the various grammatical expression of number. Link 1998 is based largely on this type of typological approach to linguistic conceptualization and relates it to formal semantic models. In a similar vein, but deriving from a different tradition of studies and with less emphasis on linguistic typology, Hirtle 1982 and Hurford 1987 offer global perspectives on number and its linguistic expression based on their views on the psychological and communicative bases of language.

  • Biermann, Anna. 1982. Die grammatische Kategorie Numerus. In Apprehension: Das sprachliche Erfassen von Gegenständen. I: Bereich und Ordnung der Phänomene. Edited by Hansjakob Seiler and Christian Lehmann, 229–243. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr.

    Now somewhat dated, and distant from current mainstream research in morphology, syntax, and semantics, but still a very instructive overview of the conceptualization of unity, quantity, and plurality through different grammatical means across the world’s languages.

  • Corbett, Greville. 2000. Number. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164344

    Comprehensive description of the full range of phenomena from a unified analytical standpoint. It discusses previous analyses and often offers novel ones. Very accessible; does not presuppose mastery of any theoretical framework, even though it is theoretically committed. Not much on results from formal semantics. Extensive bibliography.

  • Corbett, Greville. 2006. Number. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 724–731. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Summary of Corbett 2000 without detailed analyses of specific phenomena. Condenses in a single entry a useful typological overview of all aspects of number.

  • Hirtle, Walter H. 1982. Number and inner space: A study of grammatical number in English. Quebec: Presses Universitaires de Laval.

    An informal psychological interpretation of the values of grammatical singular and plural, in terms of dynamic mental operations along a continuum between “continuate” and “discontinuate” inner space. Rather distant from linguistic mainstream (especially from formal approaches); useful discussion of noncanonical interpretations.

  • Hurford, James. 1987. Language and number: The emergence of a cognitive system. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A broad, nontechnical discussion of the cognitive bases of language and number, centered on the analysis of grammatical number and numeral constructions to develop a global view of language combining a social-communicative and an individual-psychological perspective.

  • Link, Godehard. 1998. Quantity and number. In Algebraic semantics in language and philosophy. By Godehard Link, 213–229. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

    In a few pages, addresses key points on conceptual individuation and grammatical countability, expression of quantity through number and classifiers, kind-level readings (as opposed to object-level) and transnumeral readings, distributive and collective readings for entities and events; except for the conclusion, it is all in nontechnical and very accessible terms. (Reprinted from Dietmar Zaefferer, ed., Semantic universals and universal semantics [Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris, 1991], pp. 133–149.)

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