Polish Language Blog

Polish Numbers Revisited Posted by on Mar 12, 2009 in Grammar

Tomorrow is Friday the 13th (piątek, trzynastego) but instead of writing about superstitions (przesądy), I thought we should take another look at liczebniki (numbers) instead.

A number (no pun intended) of you had questions about numbers, and since they are all very valid questions, it’s more convenient to answer them in a separate blog post, instead of diddling in the comments section.

So, let’s take it from the top:

Pinolona wanted to know how to order food and specify the quantity. She already knows how it works with drinks:

  • proszę jedno piwo, dwa piwa, pięć piw, etc…

It all comes down to cases, really. When you ask for something, in Polish you ask for kogo? co? These questions answer to only one specific case, and that is the accusative case.



After I posted it yesterday, I’ve been thinking all night about pretzels, and finally got up to consult my brand new “Słownik poprawnej polszczyzny” and wouldn’t you know it, precel is one of those evil nouns that has not one, but TWO correct accusative forms. So, Pinolona was right and my original explanation was correct, too.

So, if you ask for precle (pretzels), you say this:

  • jeden precel proszę or jednego precla proszę (hehehe!), dwa precle proszę, pięć precli proszę, etc.

Just a reminder – precel is a non-personal masculine noun. And a totally confusing noun, because in the accusative form you can say either:

  • jeden precel, or
  • jednego precla

But if you say “jednego precla” you might also be using the genitive case of this horrible noun. That one answers to questions: kogo? czego? In casual speech you will hear plenty of people asking for “jednego precla” or “jeden precel“, and as it turns out – both are correct. Just be careful! When asking for stuff, you use the accusative case, when talking about stuff you don’t have – the genitivie case.

Instead of precel, let’s try to buy rower (a bicycle, also a non-personal, non-animate masculine noun) and see what happens. Not that you’d ever try to buy more than one bike, but who knows, you might be buying for a whole family, ok?

  • jeden rower proszę – one bike please  – asking for kogo? co? – accusative)
  • jednego roweru nie mam – one bike is missing, literally: I don’t have one bike (you’re counting your family’s bikes parked outside, for example) – when talking about stuff you don’t have, it’s kogo? czego? – genitive)

You can see the difference super clearly when you start asking for feminine nouns, for example – róże (roses). Proszę o (kogo? co?):

  • jedną różę, dwie róże, trzy róże, cztery róże (though someone once told me you should never buy an even number of flowers) and pięć róż.

So far, so good…

Now, take a look at those roses in the genitive case (kogo? czego?):

jednej róży, dwóch róż, trzech róż, czterech róż, pięciu róż, etc.

You wouldn’t ask for “pięciu róż” at the florist, now would you? You’d ask for (kogo? co?) pięć róż.

So, if you are still in doubt when it comes to numbers, try to quickly check how those numbers behave when attached to a noun of a different gender. Just avoid those nouns that have two correct accusative forms and you should be fine.

This ties in nicely with Russ’s comment about the accusative/genitive confusion. Here’s a copy of my reply to him (with additional information added for everyone’s benefit):

If you are just talking about straight plurals, without any numerals, then you have psy, kobiety, (dogs, women) etc… THEN their accusative case is psy, kobiety. That’s just simple plurals. Things get really strange if you add a number to the noun.

If you say “pięć psów” (five dogs), that answers both to: kto? co? (nominative) and kogo? co? (accusative). In the genitive case, it would answer to kogo? czego? – pięciu psów.

So, for example:

  • kto/co to jest? – pięć psów, sześć kobiet, siedmiu mężczyzn (nominative – as in: kto? co?)
  • kogo/co widzimy? – pięć psów, sześć kobiet, siedmiu mężczyzn (accusative – as in: kogo? co?)
  • kogo/czego nie ma? – pięciu psów, sześciu kobiet, siedmiu mężczyzn (genitive – as in: kogo? czego?)

Now the difference is very clear.

I thought reposting this comment here would be a good idea, since those numbers are indeed funky and make the nouns behave differently than they would otherwise normally do.

And finally, Barb had a real killer. She wanted to know how to translate the following sentence: “Lucas and two of his friends got lost.” Ouch! How closely translated do you need it?

  • Łukasz wraz z dwoma kolegami zabłądzili.

This would be how it should look in Polish. If you say “Łukasz i dwaj koledzy”, that appears to be correct, but sounds goofy.

So, just to show you that even native Poles would mess this one up, I decided to conduct a little poll and ask what the masses on the street would say. Or rather, the masses in my living room, as I had a house full of people at that time. The masses were more or less equally divided between Łukasz i jego dwaj koledzy zabłądzili” and Łukasz i dwóch jego kolegów zabłądzili.”

Which one is correct? I consulted my brand new “Słownik poprawnej polszczyzny” and according to the explanations there it’s “kto (who) zabłądził (got lost)?” Kto (who) is Łukasz i dwaj koledzy (nominative). However, this is good only for a short answer.

If you stretch it into a full sentence, it sounds odd. Therefore, we tend to automatically say that “Łukasz z dwoma kolegami zabłądzili.

And just for the fun of it, let’s take a look at what would happen if those friends were female (koleżanki). This makes it very clear:

Łukasz i dwie koleżanki zabłądzili” sounds odd (though this is exactly the sort of stuff one tends to find in Polish grammar workbooks for foreign learners).

We’d say – “Łukasz wraz z dwoma koleżankami zabłądzili.”

And that would make Lucas a very lucky man…

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  1. Barb Lomnicki:

    Many, many thanks Aniu. Hard to express how defeated I felt with what seemed like a simple sentence concerning Lucas and two of his friends. I now don’t feel so bad about leaving out his friends in my narrative (artisitic license).

    Great to have you back. Get some rest.


  2. Island1:

    Oh for gawd’s sake, you must be joking!

    Polish needs to take a chill pill or it will die, doę, dyem.

    It’s possible I’m just having a ‘bad Polish’ day.