The number #1 in Spanish
Before we talk about all of the numbers in the Spanish language, we need to stop and talk about the number one (1).
One is the most interesting number in Spanish because it has three forms, where most numbers have only one or two.
In addition, any number ending in one such as twenty-one (21), seventy-one (71), or two thousand four hundred and sixty-one (2,461) also has three forms.
So, what makes the Spanish number one so special?
When we use Spanish numbers in a sentence, we can either use them like an adjective or a pronoun.
When we switch between these two options, similar to other Spanish words that describe quantity such as algún vs alguno, we need to decide between three forms.
Let’s see this in action.
Firstly, here are a few examples of the number one behaving like an adjective:
English: I have one brother and one sister..
Español: Tengo un hermano y una hermana.
English: We only need one idea for the project.
Español: Solo necesitamos una idea para el proyecto.
Note there aren’t different words for ‘one’ and ‘a’ in Spanish, e.g. ‘una idea‘ could translate as ‘one idea’ or ‘an idea’. We can only distinguish between ‘one’ and ‘a’ or ‘an’ in Spanish through context.
Next, here are some examples of the number one behaving like a pronoun:
English: How many cups do you have?
Español: ¿Cuántas copas tienes?
English: I have one.
Español: Tengo una.
English: How many countries have you lived in?
Español: ¿En cuántos países has vivido?
English: Only one.
Español: Solo uno.
As you can see with this last example, when we want to say ‘one’ and this represents a masculine noun, we need to remember to say ‘uno’.
But, if we have a noun in our sentence, we need to drop the ‘o’ (e.g. ‘un libro’, ‘un artículo’ etc.) And if it is feminine, we don’t need to change forms.
Numbers ending in one
When any number ends in one, the change between forms is identical.
In addition, we don’t need to pluralize larger numbers ending in one, as we do with the majority of adjectives in Spanish.
But, we do still have to match the gender of numbers ending in one when the noun is feminine.
Here are some examples:
English: There are forty-one people on the bus (41).
Español: Hay cuarenta y una personas en el autobús.
English: How many guests are coming to the wedding?
Español: ¿Cuántos invitados vienen a la boda?
English: Two hundred and sixty-one (261).
Español: Doscientos sesenta y uno.
But, note there are numbers that end in the letter ‘o’ that we don’t need to match for gender or plural.
English: We need four knives and five spoons (4, 5).
Español: Necesitamos cuatro cuchillos y cinco cucharas.
Beyond the number one, and numbers ending in one, there are a few other numbers that change form, we will discuss these in more detail later in the article.
Un vs unos, una vs unas
The last thing we need to discuss before moving on is the plural forms of the number one: unos and unas.
As you saw a moment ago, when we have a large number ending in one, we need to stick with the singular form of one.
For example, the following doesn’t work:
English: There are fifty-one examples in the homework (51).
cincuenta y unos ejemplos en la tarea. ⊗
So, how then do we use unos and unas?
If we don’t need an exact number, we can use unos and unas for approximations.
There are, in fact, two basic scenarios in which we can use this plural form of one.
The first is for a small and non-exact number, this situation is best translated into English as ‘a few’ or ‘some’.
Here are some examples:
English: We spend a few weeks in the mountains every winter.
Español: Pasamos unas semanas en las montañas cada invierno..
English: I’m going to have some drinks with friends tonight.
Español: Voy a tomar unas copas con amigos esta noche.
The second situation in which we can use the plural form of one is for making larger numbers approximate quantities.
We can do this by combining unos and unas with a larger number. This use translates into English as ‘some’ or ‘about’.
English: I’m only going to wait about twenty minutes (20).
Español: Solo voy a esperar unos veinte minutos.
English: There are about forty questions on the test (40).
Español: Hay unas cuarenta preguntas en el examen.
Note the word order here and how we must put unos and unas before the number we want to approximate.
Now that we have discussed the number one in detail, next let’s look at the numbers between zero (0) and twenty-nine (29).