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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Idit here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I’ll answer some of your most common Hebrew questions.
The question for this lesson is…
Why is it that when counting nouns in Hebrew, the counted noun is sometimes referred to as singular - even if there’s more than one?
You may have heard the common Hebrew birthday greeting עד מאה ועשרים שנה (ad me’a ve’esrim shana), meaning, “May you live to be 120,” or literally, “until a hundred and twenty years.” If you have, you probably wondered why the word for “year,” שנה (shana) is in its singular form and not its plural form, שנים (shanim).
The reason for this is a rule regarding Hebrew counting.
When counting a noun in Hebrew, if you have more than 10 of the same item, you can refer to the items as singular OR as plural. It’s your choice. 10 items or fewer will always be plural.
For example:
“50 shekels” could be either,
חמישים שקלים (ħamishim skalim)
חמישים שקל (ħamishim shekel)
And “75 people” could be either,
שבעים וחמישה אנשים (shiv’im va’ħamisha anashim)
שבעים וחמישה איש (shiv’im va’ħamisha ish)
“9 years” can only be,
תשע שנים (tesha shanim)
and “5 percent” can only be,
חמישה אחוזים (ħamisha aħuzim)
However, despite this rule, using the singular form for counting is common only with nouns that are counted frequently, like money, units of time such as hours, days and years, or percents. It’s unlikely to hear someone say יש עשרים ציפור על העץ (yesh esrim tzipor al ha’etz) - it’s like saying “There are 20 bird on the tree.”
If you’re unsure, you can just use the plural form with numbers except one, it’ll always be appropriate!
How was this lesson? Pretty interesting, right?
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them!