John Larrysson Column: Counting Words (2 of 3)
The Multiplicatives and So On

After the cardinal (one, two, three) and ordinal (first, second, third) numbers, there are some other English counting words. These use the number words once, twice, thrice also single, double, triple and primary, secondary and tertiary. Sometimes these number words have been called multiplicatives, but the word is uncommon.

once, twice, thrice These number words count how many times you have done a thing. There are only words for the first three numbers. After three the words are derived from the cardinal numbers by adding 'times' to the number. Although thrice is less common than three times.


I only tried eating haggis once.



I have spoken to her four times.


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single, double, triple These words count how many things there are in a set. In this set of counting words, there are words after the first three, but they are less common: single, double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, sextuple, septuple, octuple, nonuple, decuple, undexuple, duodexuple... When counting scoops of ice cream in a bowl or cone, people often use single, double or triple for the first three, and after that they are more likely to say five scoops rather than quintuple. The first three words are older and come from Norman French. The words after triple are more recently created using Latin.


I'll have some whiskey to drink and make it a double.



I want a basket with five pieces of dim sum.


However a maths student would not be wrong to say,


My friends and I want a basket of fried chicken, make it a duodexuple.


However only other maths students would understand.

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We see the counting words primary, secondary, and tertiary most often when talking about schools. These are a second version of ordinal numbers, first, second and third. They show the order in which things are, usually by time or importance. Your primary school is your first school. Primary means first. (We are of course ignoring pre-school, playgroups, nursery school and kindergarten.) Your secondary school is your second school. Any school you attend after secondary school, job training, VTC or university is a tertiary school. Usually only the first three words are used. However the sequence continues with other Latin derived forms quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, and denary.

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Singers or musicians, preforming at the same time are also counted differently using an Italian system, especially for music from Italy. The order is soloist (1), duet or duo (2), trio (3), quartet (4), quintet (5), sextet (6), septet (7), octet (8)...

Children, born together, are twins (2), triplets (3), quadruplets (4), quintuplets (5) or the very rare sextuplets (6). Live births greater in number than that usually only occur with the misuse of fertility drugs so I am not including them.

There are still more words for certain numbers, for example: oh, naught/nought, nil, couple, pair, brace, half dozen, dozen, baker's dozen, score, gross and great gross; all of which I will cover next week.

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By John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.