You would say

Es sind null Grad.

which is Plural.

Why can't you say

"Es ist null Grad."



4 Answers 4


It's a language property. Logic doesn't work there. Both English and German use the plural form for any number other than 1, thus also for zero.

Other languages treat that sometimes very differently. Generally, languages are quite diverse in how they treat plurals with numbers and what type of endings they require - and considering one logical and the other not just because it doesn't match your native tongue doesn't cut it.

A few examples to the best of my knowledge:

French does it different and treats 0 and 1 as singular values, and all other numbers as plural. Chinese doesn't consider the number in the plural or singular form at all, etc.

For a software / game project (OpenTTD) which I was translation manager for some time, we have a list of different plural forms for different language localizations which knows 15 different ways for a language to form the plural, depending on the actual number. According to that list (you have to reference back the plural form list), you'd have 5 different plural forms in Irish... separate forms for 1,2,3-6,7-10 and all other numbers including 0. Or in Latvian you have 3 separate forms, one for ending in 1 except 11, one for 0, and one for all other numbers.

This is especially visible in sentences which give a quantity like "Ich sehe 5 rote Autos" (I see 5 red cars) which require the choice of singular or plural of the noun and a declension of the noun and/or adjective they refer to.
When the quantity has a unit, the unit itself usually is not subject to declension (e.g. see for instance this question on singular/plural usage with units of measurement), but the verb still has to obey the singular / plural usage ("Das sind 5 Kilogramm Kartoffeln / Es sind 0 Grad draußen" vs "Das ist ein Kilogramm Kartoffeln / "Es ist 1 Grad draußen").

Time is not a quantity and discussed here (duration of time is a quantity, like hours or minutes).

  • How do you handle it when referring to time? My native language is Swiss German, so maybe its different there but I would say "Es ist null Uhr" or "Es ist fünf Minuten nach drei", considering that "null Uhr" is a description of the current state, same as "Es ist warm". May 27 at 7:37
  • @YanickSalzmann Das würde ich genauso ausdrücken. Meine Ausführungen beziehen sich auf Sätze wie "Ich sehe 5 rote Autos". Bei Einheiten wie "30 Kilogramm Weizen" wird das zumindest im Deutschen immer im Singular verwendet (dazu gibt es hier schon einige Fragen wie bspw. hier: german.stackexchange.com/questions/34545/… ) und auch Uhrzeiten geben ja keine Anzahl im eigentlichen Sinne an (german.stackexchange.com/questions/544/… beschreibt die verschiedenen Variationen) May 27 at 12:43
  • Wäre es dann aber in OPs Beispiel nicht auch eher "Es ist null Grad"? Oder was ist der Unterschied dazu? Gefühlt ist das ja auch mehr eine Zustandsbezeichnung als eine wirkliche Mengenangabe. May 30 at 18:56

The German word for singular is Einzahl (verbatim: One-number), so it's for exactly one thing. And plural is Mehrzahl (many-number), so it's for all other numbers.

The point is, that plural is the default number, and singular is the exception used when there is only one thing.

In some languages there were also other grammatical numbers:

  • dual: For exactly two things that belong together. It existed in Proto Indoeuropean language, and the English word pair derives from that ancient grammatical number. It is still alive in form of some pronouns in dual form (in addition to singular and plural) in some German dialects1
  • trial: For exactly 3 things. This feature is very rare and exists only in Australian and Austronesian languages. It does not exist in Germanic languages.
  • paukal: For a small amount, but more than one, so it's a "small plural". You can find this grammatical number in Arabic, Amharic and also in Serbian (in Serbian only for 2, 3 or 4 things, not for more). In Germanic languages like English and German words like Englisch "some" or German "ein paar" are rudimentary paukal forms.

No matter which subset of grammatical numbers a language uses. Plural is always the default grammatical number, because it fits with all possible amounts, except those for which other grammatical numbers exist.

The number 0 is a relatively new invention. In everyday life of "normal" people it only appeared after the 17th century in Europe. So, it exists only since about 400 years in our languages, and this is too short to add a new grammatical number (a Nullzahl = zero-number) to the existing grammatical system of numbers. So, as a logical consequence, the default numner will be used which is plural.

1 These Bavarian greetings all mean "(I) greet you" in English:
Singular (greeting one person): »Griaß di«
Dual (greeting a pair): »Griaß enk«
Plural (greeting 2 people that are not a pair or 3 or more people): »Griaß aich«

  • One could even argue that the concept of the number 0 itself had people so discombobulated that it's no surprise that its grammatical treatment might bear surprises at first glance. Robert Kaplan wrote a "Natural History of Zero" (German review) with the telling title "The Nothing that Is". When the Arabs brought the concept of Zero to the west, it was treated with utmost caution. The new number was considered to be dangerous and magical. So it's kind of fitting that 0 doesn't really fit a simple "singular - plural" scheme. May 26 at 9:32
  • The word "singular" comes from Latin via French, but it's clear that it's related to "single", so exactly one, not more or less. Outside grammar "singular" means unique or even just very rare, so perhaps something like "einzigartig".
    – RDBury
    May 26 at 16:47
  • Das so it's for all other numbers ist ein non sequitur. Es heißt ja nicht "Einzahl und Nichteinzahl". Wer Null Auswärtsspiele gewonnen hat, hat keineswegs eine Mehrzahl an Auswärtsspielen gewonnen. Es folgt nicht. May 27 at 1:02

I suspect, that you are expecting the singular form ist, because you consider the temperature to be the subject mandating it. I don't agree actually. Some reasons:

  • The phrase is colloquial, I would not expect it in writing. (There something like Die Außentemperatur beträgt nn Grad would be used.) I guess this is due to leaving out something like temperature, since the message will be be understood without.
  • The very similar phrase Es hat nn Grad [draußen]. more clearly shows, that the impersonal es influences the construction.
  • In the original version of the question "Es sind zwei Grad" was also mentioned, so it was more clear that the question was about zero being plural and not subject-verb agreement. As an English speaker the subject-object thing stands out for me the most and I had to read the (original) question several times to get the actual point. Word for word you get something like "It are two degrees outside," which kind of makes my brain hurt. I know German has flexible word order and different rules to determine the subject of 'sein', and that explains the difference.
    – RDBury
    May 26 at 16:35

As Hubert Schölnast wrote, it is actually perfectly sensible to assign the number zero a plural rather than a singular. Singular refers to a thing, which does neither permit this being multiple things nor the thing being absent.

That said, all this is actually moot for the phrase "es ist/sind null Grad", because you're not actually counting degrees there. Rather you're referring to one temperature, which applies to one weather-situation, which is why contrary to the premise you may actually hear "es ist null Grad", just as much as "es ist ein Grad" or even "es ist vierzehn Grad". This should then not be understood as "there are fourteen degree-thingies in my garden" but rather as

The weather(sing.) on this day(sing.) has the property(sing.) that the temperature(sing.) equals '14.0°C'(sing.)

Which of these singulars the word "ist" refers to is a bit ambiguous.

Nowhere in the statement do any actual discrete fourteen items appear, as witnessed by the fact that it is equivalent to

The weather on this day has the property that the temperature equals '57.2°F'.

That doesn't mean you couldn't also say "es sind vierzehn Grad", and indeed this is probably the more common phrasing. But it's not inherently more logical to say it this way.

  • While it is not "more logical", it is less grammatical. German (and English) grammar requires all numbers other than 1 being referred to as plural. May 28 at 21:40
  • @planetmaker the main point of my answer is that this is irrelevant, because the word "ist"/"sind" does not refer to the degrees at all (at least nor necessarily), so their number is independent of whether it should be singular or plural. It's like "es ist viele Jahre her dass ich zuletzt Currywurst aß". May 28 at 22:25
  • The secondary point of my answer is that it is the logical thing that all numbers other than 1 are plural. Languages are often illogical, but in this case German and English have actually got it right. May 28 at 22:30
  • Der Vergleich hinkt :) "Es ist (Zeitraum) her" ist ein feststehender Begriff. Das Singular/Plural des Zeitraums kommt bspw. zum Tragen in "Es ist/sind (Zeitraum) vergangen" (Es ist 1 Minute vergangen / Es sind 0 Minuten vergangen). Über Grad habe ich lange nachgedacht. Bei Temperaturen mag der Unterschied durchaus häufiger nicht richtig gemacht werden, aber - wie Du auch schreibst - ist die richtige Verwendung des singular/plural auch damit wohl häufiger (nach meinem Gefühl / Erfahrung zumindest) May 28 at 22:31
  • 1
    Es ist unnötig das als feststehenden Begriff zu betrachten. Man kann es einfach so erklären dass in "es sind 5 Minuten vergangen" die Minuten das Subjekt sind, wohingegen das Subjekt in "es ist viele Jahre her" der Currywurstzeitpunkt ist, nicht die Jahre. Und das entspricht tatsächlich dem Temperatursatz: das Subjekt in "es ist 5 Grad" ist die Wettersituation, nicht die Grade. May 28 at 22:45

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