Plural Usage as a Key Difference between Chinese and English

This article outlines some of the common problems with plural use for native speakers of Chinese who are writing in English.

Updated on February 25, 2014

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Although an increasing volume of scientific research is being performed in China, many of the premier international journals are published in English. Thus, many Chinese-speaking researchers face the challenge of composing manuscripts in English or translating manuscripts from Chinese to English. Unfortunately, because English and Chinese are not very closely related, there are a number of significant grammatical differences that can pose difficulties for native speakers of Chinese who are writing in English. One of these key differences is plural use.

In Chinese, personal pronouns and nouns that refer to people have singular and plural forms; however, most nouns and verbs have the same form regardless of whether they are referring to one or multiple entities. The number is inferred from context. In English, in contrast, most nouns and pronouns and many verbs have distinct singular and plural forms.

Most nouns and verbs follow certain rules in how their plurals are formed. In particular, most English nouns are made plural by adding an “s” at the end:

  • “rat” ⇒ “rats”
  • “microscope” ⇒ “microscopes”

Nouns that end in certain letters (‑s, ‑sh, ‑ch, ‑x, or ‑z) are made plural by adding “es” at the end:

  • “gas” ⇒ “gases”
  • “box” ⇒ “boxes”

A few nouns have plurals formed in other ways; several common examples of these nouns are provided below.

  • “person” ⇒ “people”
  • “mouse” ⇒ “mice”
  • “spectrum” ⇒ “spectra”

English verbs in the present tense follow the opposite pattern from nouns, as verbs typically have an “s” or “es” ending in the singular form but not in the plural form:

  • “runs” ⇒ “run”
  • “washes” ⇒ “wash”

The verb “to be” and a few other common verbs form plurals irregularly:

  • “is” ⇒ “are”
  • “am” ⇒ “are”
  • “was” ⇒ “were”
  • “has” ⇒ “have”
  • “does” ⇒ “do”

With the exception of “was”/“were”, most past and future tense verbs do not have separate singular and plural forms. Verbs should agree in number with their subject (the noun or pronoun that performs the action).

  • One researcher conducts an experiment.
  • Two researchers conduct an experiment.

Pronouns in English are irregular in form; fortunately, however, there are relatively few pronouns, with a total of less than 20 commonly used pronouns. Singular pronouns in scientific writing include “I”, “he”, “she”, and “it”, whereas common plural pronouns include “we” and “they”. Pronouns should agree in number with the noun they represent. For example, in reference to multiple experimental rats, you would say “they [not it] were provided with water ad libitum”.

Adjectives, including nouns that are being used as adjectives, should almost always be written in the singular. Even adjectives that are describing a plural noun should not typically be made plural:

  • “optical microscopes” (not “opticals microscopes”)

There are a few field-specific exceptions (e.g., “systems biology”), but if you are not sure, it is best to write your adjectives in the singular form.

These guidelines address most of the basics of singular and plural usage in English writing. If you have any questions or comments, please send us an email.

Writing a manuscriptAuthor ResourcesTranslationChineseEditingGrammarPlurals
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