# Decimals: plural/singular?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by englishjasmin, Feb 6, 2011.

Not open for further replies.
1. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
This topic has been already covered in this forum a few times and most of the time the answer was that "for decimals plural of the unit is used", e.g. 0.5 meters (not 0.5 meter).

However, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which is the UK's National Measurement Institute, writes that: "For unit values more than 1 or less than -1 the plural of the unit is used and a singular unit is used for values between 1 and -1."

The Federal Reserve Board, the central bank of the United States, also uses a singular unit for decimals "For the crude stage, the operating rate increased 0.5 percentage point, to 89.0 percent, a rate that was 2.5 percentage points above its average from 1972 to 2009."

Therefore, could you please provide any evidence or link to some English grammar or style guide, which will clearly say that for decimals a plural unit shall be used?

2. ### SteublerSenior Member

Louisiana, USA
USA, English
I don't know where to direct you for an "official" rule, but for values less than 1 in magnitude, it makes good logical sense to use the singular. The reasoning is that, for example, "0.4 mile" is short for "0.4 of a mile". By contrast, "2.4 miles" means 2 miles and 0.4 of a mile, which is considered plural.

3. ### FabulistBanned

Annandale, Virginia, USA
American English
I couldn't find anything in the Chicago Manual of Style that addresses whether the word for a unit of measure should be singular or plural after a decimal. The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual gives as examples on another matter, "0.25 inch; 1.25 inches." http://frwebgate1.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgi?WAISdocID=DgMD3U/1/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve

The National Geographic [Society/Magazine] on-line style manual is more explicit:
"If the amount is less than one, the unit of measurement is singular: .33 inch (not inches) a day. If the figure is a one-digit decimal, use a zero before the point: 0.3 inch a day." http://stylemanual.ngs.org/intranet...cc1cfb5a076ca1bc8525669800650843?OpenDocument

While the singular may be "logical" and specified by some style manuals, I don't think that's what most people say or write, although perhaps they should. I think people naturally think "plural" after a number other than one, even if it's less than one. If you are writing for an organization that has a style manual that specifies the singular, that is what you should use.

Last edited: Feb 6, 2011
4. ### JulianStuartSenior Member

Sonoma County CA
English (UK then US)
Each style guide will make its own preferences known and if you write for an institute that adheres to one particular one, you need to follow that one. Most of the threads dealing with this, as you have noticed, demonstrate that a large fraction of the populace use(s) plural units except when the value is an integer of 1. Thus 0.5 inches 1 inch 1.5 inches but 1.0 inches and 1.00001 inches. Some style guides will adhere to this others will not, and will bring "logic to bear" If you are looking for "the authority" on this issue, you will unfortunately not find one! All you will find are style guides .....

5. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
It is true that Chicago manual of style does not mention this issue. However, the 16th edition of the manual writes (10.61): "Thus 12,000 meters is expressed as 12 km (not 12 000 m), and 0.003 cubic centimeters as 3 mm3 (not 0.003 cm3)."

To add to the confusion, the 15th edition of the same manual writes (15.65): "Thus 12,000 meters is expressed as 12 km (not 12 000 m), and 0.003 cubic centimeter as 3 mm3 (not 0.003 cm3)."

Maybe if someone has a printed copy, he/she could check this, because I just used some online resource to search the manual.

P.S. This could lead to questions like: Is there a mistake in the 16th edition or in the 15th edition or did the rules change inbetween?

6. ### JulianStuartSenior Member

Sonoma County CA
English (UK then US)
Looks like they may have chosen to change their guide; perhaps they have decided to go with a mainstream usage. This is an area where there are no "rules" just guides

7. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
Let me sum up the evidence that we collected in this post:

(1) National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which is the UK's National Measurement Institute, recommends to use a singular unit for values between 1 and -1.

(2) U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual suggest to use a singular unit for values between 1 and -1.

(3) National Geographic style manual recommends to use a singular unit for values between 1 and -1.

(4) Swan's Practical English Usage suggest to use a singular unit for values between 1 and -1.

(4) Chicago Manual of style confuses matters by writting 0.003 centimeter and 0.003 centimeters in the same publication.

I agree with you that each organization could have its own style guide, however, could anyone name at least 1 offical style guide that suggest to use plural units for numbers between -1 and 1?

P.S. How much significance has the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual? Is it a manual used by U.S. Government or U.S. press?

8. ### FabulistBanned

Annandale, Virginia, USA
American English
The United States Government Printing Office (GPO) is the official printer for the U.S. government. Its style guide applies to everything it prints. That's a wide range of material, but not everything printed by or for the U.S. government. Individual departments and agencies have their own style manuals: I happen to have one on my shelf for the Division of Science Resource Statistics of the National Science Foundation. Outside of GPO, its style manual is followed by organizations that don't have their own, and sometimes government contracts specify that the contractor adhere to it. Anybody can buy it and follow its recommendations—or not. It doesn't have statutory authority, and you can't be tried in Federal court for not adhering to it.

9. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
The Germans are known to be precise, so I check the German central bank flagship monthly publication (called Monthly Report). Here is a quote: “The standardised unemployment rate rose by 0.3 percentage point to 9.9%, compared with 8.0% a year earlier and 7.2% in March 2008.”

Consistently in all documents that are published by the German central bank values below 1 use a singular unit. However, the Bank of England (central bank of UK) uses a plural unit for all numbers other than 1: “The previous change in Bank Rate was a reduction of 0.5 percentage points to 0.5% on 5 March 2009.”

10. ### natkretepModerato con anima (English Only)

Singapore
English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
11. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
I am well aware that this issue has been discussed several times on this forum. All of the threads above concluded that for decimal fractions below 1 a plural unit should be used (e.g. 0.5 meters).

What I am trying to explain here, is that although all grammar experts on this forum recommend to use the plural unit for decimal fractions below 1 (see the threads that you linked) all manuals of style that I found recommend to use singular unit for decimal fractions below 1.

There is an obvious a huge inconsistency between what grammar experts and native speakers consider correct and what is considered correct by manuals of style (e.g. US Gov Printing Office Style Guide).

Therefore, I am asking for at least a single reference or style guide or style manual of any significance that could back the claim of the many threads on this forum that a plural unit shall be used for decimal fractions below 1.

Last edited: Feb 7, 2011
12. ### LoobSenior Member

English UK
Erm... it's not a claim, it's a fact, englishjasmin: it is quite normal, in everyday English, for plural nouns to be used after decimals below 1, whatever various style guides may say.

But you asked for a reference source: here's one - Michael Swan's Practical English Usage:
(EDIT: I can only assume your reference to Swan in post 5 is a mistake.)

Last edited: Feb 6, 2011
13. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
No it is not a mistake. I can not post links here (because new members can not post links until they reached 30 posts), but if you google on google.com "Swan's Practical English Usage: decimals below one" (google without the quotes): the first several links will tell you that Swan's recommends to use a singular unit with decimals below one.

Therefore, could you please check if you reference and older or a newer edition of Swan's? Swan's is famous in all internet forums for recommending to use single unit for decimals below 1 (what you can see when you google it as above).

Thank you.

14. ### LoobSenior Member

English UK
I think you may not have read those google links closely enough, englishjasmin: see for example this link, where the answer given mirrors - though not 100% precisely - my extract above.

My copy of Swan's Practical English Usage is the Third Edition, first published in 2005.

15. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
Ok, so in that case we need to agree that Swan's Practical English Usage directly recommends to use singular unit for fractions below 1. Because the quote is in your book is:

However, you probably argue that Swan's recommends to use "0.1 of a centimeter" or "0.1 centimeters" interchangeably (, but not 0.1 centimeter). Do you consider this a correct interpretation of the quoted text?

16. ### LoobSenior Member

English UK
Hello again, englishjasmin.

What you're quoting in post 15 is taken from the link I gave in post 14. Since that answer in that link was given over six years ago, I suspect it was quoting the Second Edition of Swan's Practical English Usage, and you will see that the wording has changed slightly.

The older text says (my underlining):
(1) of plus singular is common with decimals below 1
(2) decimals below 1 can also be followed directly by a plural noun.

The Third Edition - quoted in my post 12 - says (again my my underlining):
(1) of plus singular is possible with decimals below 1.
(2) decimals below 1 are often followed directly by plural nouns.
Note, too, the strikeout in Swan's example in the Third Edition: nought point six miles (NOT nought point six mile).

So, yes, I'd say that Swan is now suggesting that people should use plural nouns, though he's also saying that of+singular noun is possible.

I imagine that what is happening here is that subsequent editions are reflecting changing usage: the strengthened wording in the Third Edition is reflecting what people say now.

The same may well be true of the change you highlighted between the 15th and 16th editions of the Chicago Manual of Style.

17. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
Ok so it seems that the style is changing and plural of units for decimal fraction might be currently preferred. Although, the US government, the FED, and many others still continue to use the singular unit.

Too bad it’s not possible to determine the "correct" English. In most European countries we have the national academy of sciences that decides in cases like this on the correct usage.

18. ### FabulistBanned

Annandale, Virginia, USA
American English
English has never had anything like that; the Royal Society has never played any role in regulating the English language. English has in that sense always been more democratic than, say, French or Spanish. That there is no single authority for matters like this also means that you can never say definitively that something is "wrong" in English.

If you are writing for the German central bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, or for the National Geographic Society, or if you are writing something to be published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, you should use the singular after a decimal amount < |1.0|.

19. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
I am writing some sort of a press release for journalists. All I want to make sure that it is written correctly. I do not want the journalists (or part of them) to think that our company sucks because we don't even know grammar. The problem is that if I use plural units or s singular unit, in both case, part of the journalists will think that it’s an incorrect use of grammar. So what shall I do?

20. ### owlman5Senior Member

English-US
You can't please everybody, EJ, so maybe you should choose the version that you think will please the majority.

21. ### LoobSenior Member

English UK
I agree with owlman.

And your best guidance as to the views of the majority is ... the multiple threads here.

22. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
Majority:

If I search for ''' "by 0.1 percentage point" site:reuters.com ''' I get 250 hits. If I search for ''' "by 0.1 percentage points" site:reuters.com ''' I get 200 hits.

If I search for "0.1 meters" or "0.1 liters" on nytimes.com I get no hits, but I get some hits if I use the singular form.

In wsj.com: "0.1 percentage point" gives 1200 hits, but "0.1 percentage points" gets 120 hits.

23. ### JulianStuartSenior Member

Sonoma County CA
English (UK then US)
One problem facing you as you research this will be that a majority of the situations you might look for just use the abbreviation for the unit, with no guide on how the author would have said it! 0.1 km could be read either way as could the occasional 0.1 ft. One of the issues you face is distinguishing between % and percentage points. Your search of WSJ suggests they have a guide which recommends the "singular below 1" approach. The issue of clarity between "percent" and "percentage points" is far more important to your reputation than the diversity out there of readers who may have a reaction if you use the one they don't in terms of singular or plural.

Even if there were an "English language authority", I don't think they'd have much effect on the English spoken by the vast majority of speakers

24. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
Indeed, but there are clear rules on when to use "percentages" and when to use "percentage points". I almost never use "percent" as it is according to the Chicago Manual of Style an adverb and it can only follow a number; thus, instead of 5 percent you can write 5%. In all other cases the noun percentage should be used (e.g. a percentage of GDP, not a pecent of GDP).

(Edit: There is even a term "percentage difference" that is different from "percentages" or "percentage points").

Last edited: Feb 6, 2011
25. ### JulianStuartSenior Member

Sonoma County CA
English (UK then US)
In mathematics, one can have rules that everyone must obey - there are no style issues and there is a right and wrong.

In contrast, in English writing there are some areas where choice is allowed/required. "Rates were increased by 0.5 percent today" has a different mathematical meaning than either "Rates were increased by 0.5 percentage points today", or, if you choose a different style (guide), "Rates were increased by 0.5 of a percentage point today". Neither of those is correct or incorrect. I would re-read the following because it looks/sounds strange to me "Rates were increased by 0.5 percentage point today" but not "Rates were increased by half a percentage point today" which is also viable

My point was that a reader will degrade your reputation if you get the maths wrong but not if you use a singular (plural) where the reader prefers plural (singular).

26. ### englishjasminSenior Member

Slavic
For example if I write "The results includes", the reader will judge my reputation based on this grammar mistake. Therefore, if I write something that is a matter of style, but the reader think it is a matter of grammar then he will judge my reputation.

27. ### JulianStuartSenior Member

Sonoma County CA
English (UK then US)
I am sure you realize this comment was clearly referring only to situations similar to the percentage point vs. points discussion where it is a matter of style, not "grammar rule".
And correctly so, it IS a mistake.
Subject verb agreement is not a matter of style, as I am sure you also realize As for issues that are a matter of style, "You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time ....."
A take-home lesson from this discussion is that there are areas of English where choice is available and areas where it is not. Style guides were created with recommendations on usage to provide consistency for those writers who take advantage of their efforts at promoting consistency , such as publishers who wish their writers to conform to a particular guide's recommendations.

28. ### panjandrum<<PongoMod>> EO'Moderator

Belfast, Ireland
English-Ireland (top end)
Indeed, there would be no need for style guides if there were not areas where choice is available
There are many style guides.
They are not identical.