Spelling messages like "1 file found" or "5 files found" correctly in any language.

Created by Peter Kankowski
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Filed under Algorithms

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Plural forms


Messages like "%d file(s) found" are notoriously hard to localize. In English language, there are only 2 forms: 1 file (singular) and 2 or more files (plural), but other languages use up to 4 plural forms. For example, there are 3 forms in Polish:

    0 plików
    1 plik
  2-4 pliki
 5-21 plików
22-24 pliki
25-31 plików

Other languages (French, Russian, Czech, etc.) also use rules different from English and from each other.

The gettext library extracts a rule for plural form selection from the localization file. The rule is a C language expression, which is evaluated for each message. It's a universal solution, but an expression evaluator is probably an overkill for this task.

Simpler solution

Here are some observations about the languages mentioned on gettext page:

  • All additional plural forms are used for some range of numbers, e.g., from 2 to 4 in Slovak and Czech.
  • The pattern is often repeated for each 10 or 100 items. In Russian, it sounds like "twenty-one file", not "twenty-one files", because the noun is agreed with the last figure, "one". The same pattern repeats for 30, 40, etc.
  • The numbers from 10 to 19 are often an exception to the rules. Just like 16 is spelled differently from 26, 36, 46, etc. in English: "sixteen" vs. "twenty-six", "thirty-six", and "forty-six".
  • Zero is treated differently in some languages, e.g. Romanian.

So, the rule for each plural form will consist of these components:

range_start  range_end  modulo_for_repetition  skip_teens_flag

Here are some examples:

singular:  range_start = 1, range_end = 1
plural:    all other numbers

singular:  range_start = 1, range_end = 1
plural1:   range_start = 2, range_end = 4, modulo = 10, skip_teens = true
plural2:   all other numbers

singular:  range_start = 1, range_end = 1
plural1:   range_start = 2, range_end = 2
plural2:   all other numbers

singular:  range_start = 1, range_end = 1, modulo = 10, skip_teens = true
plural1:   range_start = 2, range_end = 9, modulo = 10, skip_teens = true
plural2:   all other numbers (from 10 to 19)

The rules for each language could be written to a short string, which is stored in the language file (e.g., for Lithuanian, the string is "1 1 10 t; 2 9 10 t").

Using the Code

Include plurals.h and plurals.c in your project. The interface consists of two functions. First, you call PluralsReadCfg to read rules from the string. Next, you pass a number to PluralsGetForm. It returns the index of correct plural form for this number, which you use to read the string from your language file:

PLURAL_INFO plurals;
PluralsReadCfg(&plurals, ReadFromLngFile("PluralRules"));

char lng_str_name[16], message[128];
sprintf(lng_str_name, "FilesFound%d", PluralsGetForm(&plurals, number));
sprintf(message, ReadFromLngFile(lng_str_name), number);

In the language file, you have strings for each plural form:

PluralRules = "1"
FilesFound0 = "%d file found"
FilesFound1 = "%d files found"

ReadFromLngFile is your own function. You could wrap two sprintfs in a higher-level function (and, of course, use a secure function instead of sprintf to protect your program from buffer overflow).

Even better solution is implementing a custom formatting function, so you could write something like "%d %(file|files) found" in the language file. Scott Rippey devised this technique and implemented it in VB .NET.


Two functions, PluralsReadCfg and PluralsGetForm, take 500 bytes in your executable file when compiled with MSVC++. A small price to pay for spelling your messages correctly in any language.

Download the source code (25 KB, MSVC++)

Peter Kankowski
Peter Kankowski

About the author

Peter is the developer of Aba Search and Replace, a tool for replacing text in multiple files. He likes to program in C with a bit of C++, also in x86 assembly language, Python, and PHP. He can be reached at kankowski@gmail.com.

Created by Peter Kankowski
Last changed


Ten recent comments are shown below. Show all comments


>I will try to explain your algorithm as I understood it

You are correct, but I'm not a linguist and in my mind was not any languages, plural forms and so on. I started thinking about 3 arrays (20 numbers from first hundred, 10 for decades loop, and exclusions for *10..*19) and flags (loop every 10, every 100, etc), then I combine all arrays in one string, use tail reduction and embed flags in string size.

By the way your method is similar (using condition to test each plural form) to Plural rules standart:


Peter Kankowski,

Thank you for the links. Note that Unicode and Mozilla have different rules for some languages. I asked them which ones are correct.

It's impressive how you started from the classic expression evaluator (similar to gettext) and came up with the smartly reduced lookup tables. Your formulas reminds me of the spellchecker by Doug McIlroy, who compressed 75 000 English words into 65 536 bytes of memory using a sparse hash table (described in Programming Pearls).

What license do you have for this code? May other people use it? May be, you would like to provide your full name to be credited in documentation / about box.


>Thank you for the links. Note that Unicode and Mozilla have different rules for some languages.

When testing formulas I found same weird things: expression for some languages presented in many different forms (even if you use reputable sources like W3C). Winner is Arabic: six different expressions and not only algorithms are differ, but even a count of plural forms!

>What license do you have for this code?

I didn't think that the ten lines of code may have any license ;-) But if you want some legal crap...



Peter, you mentioned McIlroy's spellchecker. If you're interested, his original source code is here:


(both methods mentioned in the paper - the bloom filter and the differential huffman hash)

Peter Kankowski,

NRO, thank you very much!


WARNING! The formula for Lithuanian "2011111111222222222220111111112222222222" seems to be wrong for numbers above 30.

The true algorithm for Lithuanian number could be written as:

uint8 Lithuanian_Number_Form (uint32 n)
  uint32 tmp;

	tmp = n % 100;
	if ((tmp >= 11) && (tmp <= 19))	// at first decode "teens"
		return 2;	// for n: 11-19, 111-119, 211-219, ... 911-919, 1011-1019, 1111-1119, ... 1911-1919, ...
	tmp = tmp % 10;
	if (tmp == 0)
		return 2;	// for n: 0, 10, 20, ... 90, 100, 110, 120, ...
	if (tmp == 1)
		return 0;	// for n: 1, NOT(11)!, 21, 31, 41, ... 91, 101, NOT(111)!, 121, 131, ... 991, 1001, NOT(1011)!, 1021, 1031, ... 1091, ...
	return 1;	// for n: 2-9, NOT(12-19)!, 22-29, 32-39, ... 92-99, 102-109, NOT(112-119)!, 122-129, 132-139, ... 192-199, ..., 1002-1009, NOT(1012-1019)!, 1022-1029

Peter Kankowski,

Niblis, it's the same algorithm. What are the exact numbers you have problems with? What do you expect to get and what do you get?


Peter, I am sorry. At first glance I thougt that characters in formula[30 .. 39] are for the numbers 30 .. 39, but after debugging the procedure, I found out, that they are for all "tens" and "teens" for numbers above 100: n*100 + (10..19), where n > 0. Nice algorihtm.


The way I understand the Polish algorithm, it returns singular for numbers 21, 31, 41, etc.

To be correct, it should have returned plural2. It's a little bit different than Russian.

Peter Kankowski,

Vengir, it returns plural2 for 21, 31, 41, etc. For Russian, modulo = 10 is specified for singular, hence the difference.

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