Ones and zeros, everything in life is just ones and zeros, or is it ones and zeroes? We can make things either incredibly simple or incredibly difficult by reducing everything to ones and zeros, whatever that means, but, for now, we need to decide, is it “zeros” or “zeroes”?
Zero can be used as either a noun, verb, or adjective. The adjective is not conjugated, and just the base form of ‘zero’ is used. As a noun, it can be pluralized as either “zeros” or “zeroes.” Both spellings are indicated in American English but not in British English. The verb is conjugated by adding -es to the third-person singular.
Although these differences can seem tricky at first, they are quite simple when the distinctions are clarified. Let’s delve into the different ways that the word zero can be conjugated.
Zero Is a Number
If you look for “zero” in a dictionary, it is first and foremost a noun. It is the number 0 written out and indicates the absence of a magnitude or quantity.
It is the numerical value between all the negative and all the positive numbers — a cipher. As a noun, it can, of course, be pluralized, and that is where the spelling woes start (source).
Pluralizing a Noun
The majority of nouns need to be altered in some way to create the plural noun. There is a general set of rules, based upon the letters or letters on which a word ends, that make pluralization easier.
As is usually the case with something as fluid and complicated as language, the rules are not always clear-cut, and there are numerous exceptions to every rule, as in the following example.
Rule: If a word ends on an -f or -fe, remove the -f or -fe, replace it with a -ve, and add an -s.
However, as with most rules in English, there are exceptions.
When it comes to words ending in an -o, there are also rules. Different sources will explain either one or two rules and then add some examples of exceptions. We will have a look at both of the rules one can find, as well as the exceptions:
Rule 1: For words ending -o where a vowel precedes it, we add -s:
Note that most English words ending in an -o will be pluralized by adding -s, but the other consideration is:
Rule 2: For words ending on an -o preceded by a consonant, we add -es.
However, this is not always provided as a rule but, rather, as part of the exception. The reasoning is that there are far fewer words that have -es added. Moreover, it is becoming even less popular to spell plural o-words like this.
We cannot always explain the reason for exceptions to spelling rules, and we simply must learn them, which can make it difficult for second-language speakers.
Words ending in an -o preceded by a consonant, for example, can only have an -s for the plural, like “photos,” “pianos,” and “solos” (source).
Although the rules for plurals ending in -o follow largely the addition of an -s to the end, some pluralized exceptions have their own categories and, as a result, we have irregular nouns that don’t follow any of the rules as noted above:
Other nouns have a zero plural, which means that they don’t undergo any type of change.
This is often the case with animals, and the phenomenon has its roots in Old English, where some animals never had plural forms to begin with. In certain situations, the plural naming of other animals followed suit:
Apart from these exceptions, we also have many words ending in -o that can be written with either an -s or -es to mark it as plural. It is into this category that we have to place “zero.” Other examples include:
The traditional rule would dictate that we write the plural of “zero” by adding an -es, so the plural would be “zeroes.” However, many dictionaries will indicate that both “zeros” and “zeroes” are correct.
If this is the case, how you write it will depend on personal preference, and both of the following sentences will be perfectly fine to use:
There are six zeros in the figure 1,000,000.
There are six zeroes in the figure 1,000,000.
For more information on zero, have a look at our article, “Is 0 an Irrational or Rational Number?”
The British Zero
A wonderful but potentially complicated phenomenon of language in general is the fact that we sometimes have to contend with different dialects. In this regard, English is no different, and American English can often differ from British English.
The question as to how “zero” is pluralized is one instance of such a difference.
When you search for “zero” in the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the most authoritative source of British English, you will find that they only provide “zeros” as a pluralization option.
It means that “zeros” is the only spelling of the plural, and “zeroes” is not an acceptable alternative for this dialect (source).
“Zeroes” does exist in British English but only as a verb that is conjugated for the present third-person singular. We will take a closer look at this later.
The Cambridge Dictionary is similar to the Oxford English Dictionary in that the online version’s first entry also provides “zeros” as the sole plural form of the noun.
However, note that once the word is qualified as being used in Business English, the “zeroes” alternative is also provided (source).
The reasons as to why only “zeros” seems to be correct in British English while we can use either “zeros” or “zeroes” in American English is unclear. Regardless of the reason, however, “zeros” appears to be the more popular choice for the plural in general (source).
This means that it is a matter of personal preference for users of American English as to whether they choose to write the plural of “zero” as “zeros” or “zeroes.”
“Zero” as other Parts of Speech
Apart from the fact that “zero” is a number, it also functions as other parts of speech, i.e., it is a verb and an adjective as well.
“Zero” as a Verb
When used as a verb, “zero” is often written as a phrasal verb with “in” and refers to either aiming a weapon, adjusting a weapon, or focusing your attention. Consider the following:
|To zero in on a target.||To aim at the target.|
|To zero (in) your rifle.||To adjust the aiming mechanism on a rifle.|
|To zero in on a problem.||To focus your attention on that problem.|
When the phrasal verb is “zero out,” it means that you reduce something to zero or to remove something completely:
|To zero out your bank account.||To reduce your bank account to zero.|
|To zero out the problem.||To completely remove the problem.|
When used as a verb, “zero” follows the normal rules of a verb in its different tenses and persons. Let’s use the first example above with the verb in its various forms.
In the present simple tense, the verb changes according to its subject, and for the third-person singular, it usually means adding an -es. For “zero,” it means the spelling is the same as one of the plural versions of American English:
|I/You/We/They||zero in on||the target|
|He/She/It||zeroes in on||the target|
The present continuous requires the verb “to be” to undergo conjugation according to the person plus the present participle (verb ending in -ing):
|I||am zeroing in on||the target|
|You/We/They||are zeroing in on||the target|
|He/She/It||is zeroing in on||the target|
In the past tense, we simply use the verb in its past form, meaning we usually add -ed:
|I/You/He/She/It/We/They||zeroed in on||the target|
“Zero” as an Adjective
Nouns can often act as adjectives, and “zero” is no different. As such, it is defined as relating to or being zero. When this adjective modifies a noun, it will indicate that there is nothing of that noun (source).
The adjective is not conjugated in any way and remains in the root form of the word.
Consider the following:
The economy showed zero growth.
The students made zero progress on their project.
The verb “zero in” can also be used as an adjective. In this case, however, it will be conjugated:
The zeroed in rifle shot perfectly every time.
In Summary: A Comparison
The summary below provides a quick overview of the different parts of speech and formats that are applicable to “zero”:
|Definition||The absence of all magnitude or quantity.||To determine or adjust the zero of. To concentrate on. Used with “in.”||Of, relating to, or being zero.|
|Conjugation||Suffix -s or -es (AE)Suffix -s (BE)||Suffix -es, -ed, or -ing||No conjugation|
|Usage examples||There are three zeros in my phone number.||He regularly zeroes his rifle.||We have a zero-tolerance policy towards bullies.|
Due to the different parts of speech that “zero” can be used in, there are many synonym options that mean almost exactly the same thing, while others have a slight difference in meaning but convey the same idea.
|Aim||Verb||Direct a course|
Point a weapon
|He aimed his rifle at the target.He zeroed in on the target.|
|Direct||Verb||Point a weapon|
Go in a certain direction
|He directs his rifle at the target.He directs his attention on the screen.He zeroed in on the screen.|
|Hone in (on)||Verb||To focus on or move towards||The bird hones in on its prey. The bird zeroes in on its prey.|
|Noun||The number 0||He won that game thirty love. He won that game thirty-zero.|
|Nada (Slang)||Noun||The number 0||It won’t cost anything — zero, nada, nothing!|
|Naught/Nought (Popular in British English)||Noun||The number 0||The car goes from nought to 60 in three seconds. There are two noughts in 100.The car goes from zero to sixty in three seconds.|
|Nought||Pronoun||Nothing||It was all for nought.It meant zero.|
|Nothing||Pronoun||No interest or value||It means nothing to me. It meant zero.|
|Nil (often used in sport)||Noun||The number 0||The Lions won three to nil.She reduced my account to nil. The Lions won three to zero.|
|O/Oh (often used in military contexts)||Noun||The number 0||My locker combination is oh five five. We start at oh seven hundred hours. My locker combination is zero five five.|
|Wipe out||Verb||Make zero||She wiped out my bank account. She zeroed my bank account.|
|Zilch (Slang)||Noun||The number 0||I have no money left, zilch, it’s all gone!I have zero money left; it’s all gone.|
“Zero” functions as a noun, verb, and adjective. As a result, it has a number of different suffixes that can be added to it as well as a lengthy list of possible synonyms that can be used.
In American English, pluralizing the number “zero” by adding -s (“zeros”) or adding -es (“zeroes”) are both correct. In British English, it is only correct to add -s (“zeros”), and -es (“zeroes”) is only used for the conjugation of the verb in the third-person singular.
If you are writing an English competency test based on British English, it would be wise to remember this distinction and avoid “zeroes” as a plural form.