Zeroes or Zeros: Noun, Verb, Adjective, and Plural Forms

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.

SingularPlural
WifeWives
LeafLeaves
HalfHalves

However, as with most rules in English, there are exceptions.

SingularPlural
CliffCliffs
RoofRoofs
ChefChefs

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:

SingularPlural
ZooZoos
StudioStudios
VideoVideos

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.

SingularPlural
HeroHeroes
PotatoPotatoes
TomatoTomatoes

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.    

The Exceptions

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:

SingularPlural
ManMen
ChildChildren
PersonPeople

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:

SingularPlural
SheepSheep
FishFish
BuffaloBuffalo

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:

SingularPlural
VolcanoVolcanos/Volcanoes
MosquitoMosquitos/Mosquitoes
TornadoTornados/Tornadoes

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).

Plural Popularity

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

Image by PDPics via Pixabay

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:

PhraseExplanation
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:

PhraseExplanation
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: 

SubjectVerbComplement
I/You/We/Theyzero in onthe target
He/She/Itzeroes in onthe target
Present Simple

The present continuous requires the verb “to be” to undergo conjugation according to the person plus the present participle (verb ending in -ing):

SubjectVerbComplement
Iam zeroing in on the target
You/We/Theyare zeroing in on the target
He/She/Itis zeroing in onthe target
Present Continuous

In the past tense, we simply use the verb in its past form, meaning we usually add -ed:

SubjectVerbComplement
I/You/He/She/It/We/Theyzeroed in onthe target
Present Simple

“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”: 

NounVerbAdjective
DefinitionThe 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.
ConjugationSuffix -s or -es (AE)Suffix -s (BE)Suffix -es, -ed, or -ingNo conjugation
Usage examplesThere are three zeros in my phone number.He regularly zeroes his rifle.We have a zero-tolerance policy towards bullies.
Zero

Synonym Options

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. 

SynonymFunctionMeaningExample Sentence
AimVerbDirect a course
Point a weapon
He aimed his rifle at the target.He zeroed in on the target. 
DirectVerbPoint 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)VerbTo focus on or move towardsThe bird hones in on its prey. The bird zeroes in on its prey.
Love
(tennis use)
NounThe number 0He won that game thirty love. He won that game thirty-zero.
Nada (Slang)NounThe number 0It won’t cost anything — zero, nada, nothing!
Naught/Nought (Popular in British English)NounThe number 0The 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.
NoughtPronounNothingIt was all for nought.It meant zero.
NothingPronounNo interest or valueIt means nothing to me. It meant zero.
Nil (often used in sport)NounThe number 0The Lions won three to nil.She reduced my account to nil. The Lions won three to zero.
O/Oh (often used in military contexts)NounThe number 0My locker combination is oh five five. We start at oh seven hundred hours. My locker combination is zero five five.
Wipe outVerbMake zeroShe wiped out my bank account. She zeroed my bank account.
Zilch (Slang)NounThe number 0I have no money left, zilch, it’s all gone!I have zero money left; it’s all gone.

Final Thoughts

“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.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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