The UI Plural(s) problem

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all used it, we’ve probably all been in the meeting when it was decided to do it.

houston we have 1 problem(s)

I’m referring to the plural problem. That is instead of adding an S to the end of a noun to note more than one the developer adds an (s) in brackets.

You have 1 email(s). You have 2 email(s) instead of the correct English, 1 email, 2 emails. You get the idea.

I rather flippantly tweeted that this is down to lazy development, and the following Twitter discussion helped me truly understand the problem. I used to teach English as a second language so it’s something I understand. Let’s look at the problem in a bit of detail.

We have 3 problem(s) to resolve.

It’s not as simple as adding an s. In English we have quite a few irregular plurals. One sheep, two sheep. One fish, two fishes.

Robin helps with a list of irregular plurals for Ruby:

We also have uncountable nouns, that’s items that are not ever pluralised. eg rices, beefs. These are often food items that can’t be counted. But worse sometimes nouns are and aren’t countable depending on context. eg chicken when referring to the meet is uncountable but when referring to the animal it is countable!

Stuart Langridge shares this about why Microsoft do the plural(s).

The third problem being internatianis(z)ation. Some languages like Czech are case based. That is the noun changes based on if there is 1, 2, 3 or more of them. (Pivo is beer: Je tu 1 pivo, Jsou tu 2 piva, je tu 3 piv)

What to do

If you are writing and designing micro copy like design filters, search results. Specify the singular and plural for your language, English. If it’s an irregular plural say so. Spend time getting it right. Don’t assume a list of plurals exist.

Write note and guidance for any translations to the same effect. Translating microcopy is a real art, so specify how it should be done.

It’s about taking pride in your UI, you could not bother but to your users that looks a little lazy and not very human.


Also published on Medium.

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