The Grammarphobia Blog

Number crunching: when un oeuf is un oeuf

Q: Pat was asked on WNYC about inconsistencies between English and French in pluralizing numbers. Well, French itself is inconsistent. For example, 200 is deux cents, but 2,500,000 is deux millions cinq cent mille.

A: You’re right. French numbers DO seem inconsistent to us, just as English numbers must seem inconsistent to the French.

We consider “three hundred” as simply a number (like “nine” or “seventy-eight”). But the French treat their word cent (hundred) more like a noun than a number.

Just as we would pluralize the word “bushel” in “three bushels,” the French pluralize cent as cents when it appears in multiples: trois cents (literally, “three hundreds”).

Similarly, the French pluralize the words million and milliard (“billion”) in multiples, as if they were nouns.

So when un million and un milliard are multiplied by three, they become trois millions and trois milliards (literally, “three millions” and “three billions”).

But their word mille (thousand) stays singular no matter what: trois mille (“three thousand”).

And here’s one more exception. When cent is followed by another number, the plural “s” is dropped: trois cent dix (“three hundred ten”).

But multiples of million and milliard keep the plural “s” even if another number follows: trois millions deux cent mille (literally, “three millions two hundred thousand”).

There are several other differences between the French and the English systems.

The French, for instance, don’t use et (“and”) between the hundreds and the tens, as English speakers often do (“three hundred and ten”). We’ve written a blog item about this English practice.

Also, large numbers in French have another noun-like quality. Big numbers are followed by de (“of”) when they come before a noun.

So to say “Ten million people own four million dogs,” the French would say, Dix millions de personnes ont quatre millions de chiens.  

There are many other differences –  hyphenation and punctuation, for example, and the way twenties (vingts) are treated as units.  But un oeuf is un oeuf.

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