English English language Grammar Usage

Can a number be a pronoun?

Q: I’m puzzled by the numbers in this example: “Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three.” Is “seven” a numerical pronoun? Or is it an adjective with an implied noun? Ditto regarding: “three.”

A: In our opinion, a number used this way is not a pronoun. We would call it an adjective functioning as a noun.

The noun “seven” here has a clear antecedent; it refers to “Bob and his friends.” The noun “three,” given the context, is understood to mean three adversaries.

In English, the cardinal numbers (which say how many, like “three”) and the ordinal numbers (which say in what order, like “third”), have two general functions. They can be adjectives (some prefer the term “determiners”), or nouns.

This is how they’re treated, for example, in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using “three” as an example, the OED says it’s a noun when it means “a group or set of three things or persons.” And in entries for other numbers, Oxford says they’re nouns when they mean a size, rank, score, weight, and so on.

So the numbers in these examples are nouns, by Oxford’s definition: “They left in twos and threes” … “She wears a six, sometimes a seven” … “So far they’ve won nine and lost eight” … “He discarded a five and drew an ace.”

A number is an adjective, the OED says, when it modifies an expressed noun (“three gentlemen”), or when it stands alone in the predicate (“we galloped all three”).

And finally, the OED says a number like “three” can be an adjective used “absolutely”—that is, without an accompanying noun and functioning as a noun.

The dictionary gives this citation from the Wycliffe Bible (1382): “For where two or three shulen be gedrid [shall be gathered] in my name, ther am I in the midil of hem.”

It also gives this 20th-century example: “Which three do you choose? Any three you please.”

So the “seven” and the “three” in your example (“Bob and his friends drew their swords. They were seven, facing three”) would be adjectives used absolutely—that is, as nouns.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes a somewhat similar view of numbers like this, though it uses very different terminology. It would describe that “three” as a “fused-head construction.”

In this type of construction, an implied noun phrase (“three people,” “three objects,” or whatever), is fused into a single word (“three”). The head of the phrase (the implied noun) disappears into the adjective or determiner (“three”), which now functions as a noun.

The Cambridge Grammar has these examples (the editors underline the fusions): “Four boys played croquet and two played tennis” … “He gave ten copies to me and six to the others” … “After having a first child, I didn’t want a second.”

(We should point out that the fused part can appear in a separate sentence: “I’ll take two, please” … “Only five showed up at the meeting.”)

But this kind of construction isn’t limited to numbers. Some ordinary adjectives can become nouns in fused constructions. Here are examples from the Cambridge Grammar:

“Henrietta likes red shirts, and I like blue” … “Knut wanted the French caterers, but I wanted the Italian” … “I prefer cotton shirts to nylon” … “Lucie likes big dogs, but I prefer small.

In short, neither the OED nor the Cambridge Grammar treats numbers as pronouns, and we agree with them, though some grammarians and even some standard dictionaries disagree.

But even if you do regard a number as a pronoun, it’s not a good idea to call it a “numerical” or “numeral” pronoun. The term “numeral pronoun” is sometimes used in linguistics, but it means something else entirely—a word, like “all” or “many,” that means an indefinite number.

Here’s a definition from the Dictionary of Linguistics, by Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor. “numeral pronoun: A term occasionally used for a word which denotes an indefinite number of persons or things.”

The only number that everyone agrees can be a pronoun is “one.”

As we’ve written on our blog, “one” is a personal pronoun in uses like “One does one’s best” and “One never knows.” Like the other personal pronouns, it has possessive and reflexive forms, “one’s” and “oneself.”

When “one” is a pronoun, it can be replaced completely by something else, like “people in general.” It’s not intended as an adjective used elliptically—that is, short for “one person,” “one citizen,” etc.

We think it’s a good policy to focus on how a word functions rather than on what it’s called.

Grammatical terminology today is not what it was 100 (or even 50) years ago. The most respected authorities may differ in their terminology, which can be confusing to a non-linguist.

Take the examples of the “poor” and the “rich,” meaning poor people and rich people. They’ve been interpreted in at least three different ways:

They’re “adjective pronouns” according to one 19th-century grammarian (Stephen Watkins Clark, A Practical Grammar, 1847).

They’re nouns, according to the OED. 

They’re fused-head constructions, says the Cambridge Grammar. The implied noun phrase (which could be paraphrased as “those who are rich,” “those who are poor”) is fused into a single word.

So as you can see, the terms change but the words work in the same way—they act exactly like nouns.

That 19th-century grammarian (who, by the way, invented sentence diagramming) defined a pronoun as “a word used instead of a noun.” Consequently, he identified “sublime” and “ridiculous” as pronouns in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But authorities today don’t regard as a pronoun any word that can replace a noun or noun phrase. If this were the case, words for colors could be pronouns, as in “She considered the black dress but ending up buying the gray.”

It would be reasonable to consider “gray” either as a noun or as an adjective used elliptically for the noun phrase “gray dress.” But no one would call it a pronoun.

And no one today would call “bad” a pronoun in a sentence like this: “Each dress has its good points and its bad.”

Similarly, we don’t consider “two” a pronoun in this similar construction: “She looked at a dozen scarves and purchased two.”

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