Numbers… I hear your groan!

Often hard to learn in another language.



I mean, look at the French, for 92 they say ‘four twenties twelve’ (quatre-vingt douze) whereas the Chinese confuse us by grouping tens of thousands together which makes 25,000 ‘two ten thousands five thousand’ (两万五千 – liang wan wu qian). However, when the French or Chinese want to count a single thing, a one is a one.

Seems logical, except it’s not like that in English. When we only have one thing to count we basically don’t count, we ignore our numbers and simply use the indefinite article ‘a’.

One vs. A:

When ordering at the pub:
“A pint of beer and a packet of cheese and onion crisps, please.”

When ordering a round at the pub:
“I’ll have a pint of Guiness, a gin and tonic and two cokes, please,”

When referring to time:
“He was away for a week.”
“She’ll be back in a minute.”
“We’re closing the office for a day.”

When counting hundreds, thousands or millions:
“I bet you a hundred dollars you can’t find the answer.”
“He estimated around a thousand people turned up to the event.”
“A million dollars in turnover is all you need to join our club.”

Of course, in all these cases you could use the number ‘one’ instead of the article ‘a’, and definitely if you want to put the emphasis on that part of the sentence.

“He was away for one week and the whole system collapsed without him.”
“She estimated around one thousand people turned up to the event, up 25% from last year.”

The fact that native speakers don’t use the number one much can often lead to misunderstanding.

Many people are confused by the lack of a clear number in our sentences. When sitting alone at a café, waiters often thrust an index finger at me, and ask, “One beer, you want one beer?”

And I think, yes, I want one beer, can you see anyone else sitting at my table? But that isn’t the point, it isn’t so much a question of one rather than two or more, it’s that my order doesn’t have a clear number in it.

To make yourself clear, to emphasize a single one, use the number one, but the rest of the time, to sound really authentic in English, you can drop ‘one’ in favour of ‘a’.

And that’s how to use one in the singular form. It will take another post to explain the strange concept of pluralising something as singular as one!

Photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc

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