Numbers and the word "שנה"


Spanish - Mexico
I've noticed that when saying an amount of years in Hebrew the word "שנה" remains in singular, like in this newspaper extract:

"היא כתבה מאות שירים שמלווים אותנו כבר חמישים שנה."

Is this a rule? Must the word "שנה" always be in singular when preceded by a number? And are there any other instances of this phenomenon?

  • Drink

    Senior Member
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    Ah, you've encountered one of the most elusive areas of Hebrew grammar.

    Firstly, I'll describe the historical rules:

    - With numbers 2-10, you use the plural (for example, שבע שנים and שבעה ימים).
    - With numbers 11+, you use the singular (for example, שבע עשרה שנה and שבעה עשר יום).

    Now for the complicated part. In Modern Hebrew, the rules are kind of not very well understood. You have to read research papers to understand them well. But in short, the rules are like this:

    - There are two types of words. Commonly counted words, and regular words. Commonly counted words include units of measurement, currency, etc.
    - For ordinary words, the ordinary gender rules are followed, and the plural is always used, even for numbers 11+ (for example, שבעה בתים and שבע עשרה מסעדות).
    - For counting-words, very often, the number will be the feminine number, and the singular will be used regardless of number (for example, שבע שקל, instead of שבעה שקלים). (Note: This is the main thing that gives people the impression that Israelis don't know how to use the genders of numbers correctly. But note that Israelis actually have no trouble with the genders of numbers, as they use them correctly for non-counting words.)
    - However, in many cases, the historical rules are also applied.

    And I'll end off by saying that I'm not sure this explains the use of חמישים שנה. Since I do believe people use the plural for smaller numbers. But the singular for large numbers is too common to be an allusion to historical usage. I guess there is more to the mystery that I still don't know.


    Senior Member
    In big numbers/quantities it is common to use singular.
    Some examples that sound correct in contemporary spoken Hebrew:
    מאה שקל
    אלף איש
    אלף זמר ועוד זמר
    מאה קילומטר
    עד מאה ועשרים שנה
    מאתיים פעם
    אלף לילה ולילה
    ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה


    Spanish - Mexico
    Thank you so much, Drink and GeriReshef! Both of your answers definitely helped me in clearing that up.

    This is one of those instances when I so wish Modern Hebrew speakers stuck to those historical rules you mentioned, Drink, it's so much clearer and simpler!

    And now that you mention it, Geri, and I may be wrong, but I believe I've yet to come across this particular phenomenon when small figures are concerned.