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Polish grammar has…a reputation. Most people say it’s the hardest language in the world. In fact, that’s the reason I even started learning it.
And it’s true! The verb aspects are a pain. Even with numbers, Polish makes it unnecessarily complicated. There are some types of grammatical numbers that you can use, depending on situation and the type of thing you’re talking about. Of course, there are also the infamous case declensions.
But fear not! I’m here to clear it all up. Every type of number you’ll need, when to use them, how to use them. All in one place.
If you want to follow my language learning journey and how I got from zero to this point, don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel, so you get all my tips and experiences earlier!
This guide assumes that you already know what the numbers and their declined forms are, so I can focus on how to use them and when to decline them. I won’t give you a full list, so if you’re lost, Wiktionary has all the declensions.
I also don’t recommend studying directly from this article. Instead, learn the grammar from context, and when you get confused, come back here for a reference.
The Basics…or are they?
Let’s start with the nominative and accusative. The basic, default cases that you use most. Should be simple enough, right?
In many cases, you will be using the default form (nominative) of the number, such as when the thing you are counting is the subject of a sentence. The form of the noun, though, will depend on the number:
1 (jeden): treat jeden like an adjective, and change its ending with the noun.
2–4: use the noun in the plural. Also any number that ends with 2, 3, or 4. Note that dwa becomes dwie with any feminine nouns, but trzy and cztery have no feminine forms.
The Number Takes Over
Before we get any further, I need to explain one phenomenon that I call “the number takes over“.
Normally, when you’re talking about a group of things, the things are the subject of the sentence. The verb works with the things.
Three men walk into a pub.
My two sisters don’t get along.
But in many, many situations in Polish, it works differently. The number becomes the subject of the sentence. It’s treated as the more important part of the phrase, instead of the noun itself. It’s a little bit like the words couple and trio in English, except way more common.
The trio livens up the pub. / The trio of men livens up the pub.
The couple is faced with many difficulties. BUT A couple of women are going to help.
When the number becomes the subject in Polish, it’s always a singular neuter noun. This will be important when you’re using them in the past tense, for example.
It is then followed by the genitive plural of the actual thing. It’s like how I used a trio of men instead of three men. Any adjective that describes the noun is also in the genitive plural form.
When does the Number Take Over?
This part will make up the bulk of this article, because it’s a lot to remember.
1. Numbers that don’t end in 2-4
Anything 5 or above that doesn’t end in 2-4 takes over, i.e. 5-21, 25-31, 35-41, etc. So:
Cztery koty piją mleko. Four cats are drinking milk.
Pięć kotów pije mleko. Five cats are drinking milk. or literally: a fivesome of cats is drinking milk.
Trzynaście kotów nie pije mleka. Thirteen cats don’t drink milk.
12-14 fall into this category, because when you say them aloud, they end in -naście, not dwa, trzy, cztery.
Dwadzieścia jeden miłych kotów piło mleko. Twenty-one nice cats were drinking milk.
Yes, numbers ending in 1 (except number 1 itself) fall into this category. The ‘jeden’ part becomes indeclinable, i.e. it never ever changes form. Ever.
Also, as I said earlier, notice how the verb is used in the singular neuter form.
Some more weird applications of this rule:
Dziesięć kotów zostało zaadoptowanych. Ten cats were adopted.
Notice that the verb is singular because it refers to the number dziesięć, while the adjective is plural genitive because it refers to the cats.
Śpię przez najbliższych pięć godzin. I’m sleeping for the next five hours.
Even though the adjective najbliższy (closest) comes before the number, it still describes the noun godzin, so you need to anticipate the case and decline the adjective accordingly.
Problemów jest siedem. There are seven problems / Problems – there are seven of them.
As you know, the free word order means you can put the most important word up front, as the topic of the sentence. However, everything still needs to decline properly, hence this very unintuitive sentence.
2. Two or more MEN
If you don’t know by now, Polish is quite a sexist language.
No, seriously. There’s this thing called the virile gender, or masculine personal. (Vir is the Latin word for man.) It’s for masculine nouns that refer to humans, such as Polak (Pole), użytkownik (user), lekarz (doctor). It basically means men. Or boys, assuming that the noun is grammatically masculine, i.e. not dziecko.
In the singular, it is grammatically the same as non-human animate masculine nouns, such as kot (cat) and pies (dog), or inexplicably, Facebook and basically most modern English loanwords in casual language.
(Inanimate things like komputer and stół (table) are grammatically different, but that’s a topic for another day.)
In the plural, these men are their own kind, separate from literally everything else. Three men are one category. Three women, three children, three mice, three boxes…these are the same thing. Grammatically.
As a result, these guys get their own numbers: dwóch/dwu, trzech, czterech, etc. Privilege at its best. But basically, they look like the genitive/locative form for everyone else.
Klasa trzydziestu dziewczyn. A class of thirty girls.
Trzydziestu chłopców. Thirty boys.
When you see this form in context, it feels like you’re seeing the genitive/locative where you’re not expecting to, so it might be confusing at first.
Potrzebuję trzech braci. I need three brothers. (trzech in the genitive)
Mówię o trzech braciach. I’m talking about three brothers. (trzech in the locative)
Mam trzech braci. I have three brothers. (trzech in the accusative)
BUT: The Other Numbers for Men (Nominative)
Because men are just so important, we have not only one set of numbers for them, but another! These are relatively less common, but still commonly in use, just in the nominative form.
Dwaj/trzej/czterej studenci piją piwo. Two/three/four students are drinking beer.
Dwadzieścia dwaj uczniowie uczyli się. Twenty-two pupils were studying.
With these numbers, men become slightly less special. They behave just like everyone else…as long as the number ends in 2-4. The number does not take over. The noun is in the nominative plural form that you expect. The verb is plural.
With anything ending in 1, 0, 5-9, or in the accusative, you still need to use the genitive-looking numbers detailed above.
Overriding the takeover
These kinds of ‘takeovers’ only happen in the basic cases, nominative and accusative.
In other cases, the number itself gets declined. The object itself declines according to the case. The noun is treated as the main part of the phrase, not the number. Everything is as it should be. The world is back to normal.
Daję pieniądze dwom/dwóm braciom. I give money to two brothers.
Pójdę z trzydziestoma siedmioma kaczkami. I’ll go with thirty-seven ducks.
(Yes, every part of the number is declined.)
In the genitive and locative, the number looks the same as the ones for men. But the form of the noun itself reflects the case.
Mówię o pięciu kotach. I’m talking about five cats.
Mówię o dwudziestu trzech chłopcach. I’m talking about twenty-three boys.
Potrzebuję dwóch sióstr. I need two sisters.
Potrzebuję dwóch braci. I need two brothers. (dwóch in the genitive)
Compare: Mam dwóch braci. I have two brothers. (dwóch in the accusative, virile)
Compare: Mam dwie siostry. I have two sisters. (dwie in the accusative, feminine)
I feel like it’s because most of these declined numbers end in -u (pięciu, dwudziestu), so the noun declines to make the case clearer. It’s not a rule though, just a feeling.
2.5 Special Numbers
Here, we have some numbers that aren’t actual numbers, but are grammatically treated as such. They work exactly like numbers in categories 1 and 2, with all the shenanigans we’ve talked about.
Wiele/kilka kotów piło mleko. Many/several cats were drinking milk.
Wielu/kilku ludzi zostało znalezionych. Many/several people were found.
(wielu/kilku in the nominative, virile – again, it looks like the genitive)
Daję pieniądze wielu studentom. I give money to many students.
Pójdę z kilkoma kaczkami. I’ll go with several ducks.
There are also other words that express similar meanings, but are grammatically not numbers. They’re just regular nouns that describe quantities.
Dużo/mnóstwo/sporo/masa kotów piło/piła mleko. A lot of cats were drinking milk.
Mało psów pije mleko. Few dogs drink milk.
(By the way, dużo, mało and sporo don’t decline at all.)
Większość ludzi została znalezionych. The majority of people were found.
(the verb refers to większość, while the adjective refers to the people)
Compare: Małżeństwo moich rodziców rozpada się. The marriage of my parents is falling apart.
Pójdę z garstką kaczek. I’ll go with a handful of ducks.
When you use these, the ‘number’ word is the subject. Just treat it as a regular noun and attach the thing in genitive at the back, not unlike in those ‘takeovers’. However, the gender depends on what noun you’re using, and there is no virile form.
In casual Polish, you can also use the numbers that end in -ka, such as dwójka and trójka, to refer to a group of something. (The original meanings of these nouns refer to the concept of the numbers, such as ‘give me five!’ or ‘put down a three.’)
Grammatically, they work just like the ones above.
Mam dwójkę dzieci. I have two kids / I have a couple of kids.
This brings us perfectly to the final boss:
3. Collective Numbers, the Royal Pain in the Arse
Polish has a thing called collective numbers, and I hate them.
They start with dwoje, troje and czworo, and then pretty much everything else is just the number with the -oro ending. They’re quite recognisable.
Grammatically, they work almost just like the ‘takeover’ numbers from earlier (genitive plural etc etc), with one tiny but key difference that I’ll explain later. Let’s start with the nominative and accusative for now.
They are used in three main ways only:
I. Mixed gender groups of humans
If you are aware that a group of humans contains both men and women, you must use a collective number.
Troje studentów zostało ukaranych. Three students (perhaps two male, one female) were punished.
Compare: Trzech studentów zostało ukaranych. Three male students were punished.
Compare: Trzy studentki zostały ukarane. Three female students were punished.
II. Animate neuter nouns
In Polish, the vast majority of nouns referring to animals and humans are either masculine or feminine.
These are the exceptions. For the handful of neuter-gender nouns that refer to people and animals (i.e. animate beings), you use collective numbers.
By far, the most common one you’ll see is dzieci (children):
Mam dwoje dzieci. I have two children.
(You might remember that in casual language, this can be replaced with dwójkę dzieci.)
Trzynaścioro dzieci bawi się. Thirteen children are having fun.
(Again with the singular verb.)
Other than this, there is a special category of nouns ending with -ę, which behave similarly. It generally refers to offspring and younglings, nowadays usually of animals, but also young people in some cases. It’s a lot like the -ling in ‘duckling’.
Widzę troje kociąt/jagniąt/kurcząt. I see three kittens/lambs/chicks.
These comes from kocię, jagnię and kurczę respectively – yes, the very same kurczę that many use as a euphemism for the you-know-what-word.
W zamku jest czworo dziewcząt/książąt. In the castle, there are four girls/princes.
(Princess is księżniczka, which is a feminine noun that doesn’t fall into this category.)
And last but not least, another very common word:
W zoo jest dziewięćdziesięcioro dziewięcioro zwierząt. There are 99 animals in the zoo.
Thankfully, as far as I am aware, these numbers only go up to 99.
Now, I’ve saved the best (weirdest) one for last:
III. Words that are always plural
In grammar, these are called pluralia tantum. As opposed to singulare tantum, things that cannot be plural, such as water.
In English, we have a handful of nouns that are always plural, such as trousers, scissors, and sunglasses, even if these things are physically one object. In these cases, you need a counter word to count them: a pair of trousers/scissors/sunglasses.
Polish is similar, except (1) they’re sometimes different nouns, which can be unintuitive for English speakers; and (2) instead of adding a counter word, you use…guess what? The collective number.
Some types of plural-only nouns are:
- Pairs or sets of things, like in English: scissors, glasses, trousers, tights, but also doors, stairs, and lips.
- Special dates: birthday, name day, engagement, holidays.
- Games with sets of things: chess, bowling.
- Body parts: back.
- Countries, though you’re unlikely to count them: Czechia, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Hawai’i, China, India. I guess if you want to overturn the One China Policy, the collective number has your back.
- I don’t know anymore: perfume.
- The ones that matter to me, a musician: violin, organ (the instrument).
Pro tip: Don’t bother to learn these words by heart this very moment. Just look them up when you need them, and I assure you, the dictionary will let you know if they’re always plural.
But here are some examples:
Pożyczyłem dwoje skrzypiec. I borrowed two violins.
Dom ma dziesięcioro drzwi. The house has ten doors.
I guess doors used to come in pairs, even though they don’t anymore?
One Key Difference
As I promised, collective numbers decline differently from regular numbers in one respect: the instrumental.
As a refresher, because this article is so long: a number like pięć (five) declines in the genitive, dative, instrumental, and locative cases. It takes a noun in the genitive plural in the nominative and accusative (pięć kotów).
Outside of these two, the number and the noun take the same case, in the dative (pięciu kotom), instrumental (pięcioma kotami) and locative (pięciu kotach). In the genitive, accordingly, the noun also becomes genitive plural (pięciu kotów), but this time for a different reason.
Earlier, I termed it an ‘override’: the number tries to take over, but the genitive, dative, instrumental and locative are so strong (SO COMPLEX) that they stopped the takeover.
Well, for collective numbers, only the dative and locative override the takeover. Here’s how I picture it.
To me, the collective numbers are weird in a unique way, because they feel halfway between a grammatical number (pięć, dwadzieścia, kilka, wiele) and a noun that isn’t grammatically a number (mnóstwo, większość).
In most declensions, it feels like the latter. You insert a g, and out of dwoje, you get dwojga, dwojgu, dwojgiem, dwojgu. Ignoring the nominative/accusative form, it looks as if it were a neuter noun ‘dwojgo’!
But do you see the two -u ones? They look the same as each other! In these cases (dative and locative), the number behaves like a grammatical number, i.e. the case overrules everything. The number and the thing take the same case.
Daję pieniądze dwojgu dzieciom. I give money to two children.
Mówię o pięciorgu kociętach. I’m talking about five kittens.
In my mind, it’s because the -u endings look the same, so the noun declines to clarify it.
Meanwhile, in the genitive and instrumental, the number gets a cool, unique ending. Perhaps as a result, the thing doesn’t have to clarify the case, so it just recedes to the genitive plural and lets the number take over, just like nouns like mnóstwo and większość.
Potrzebuję dwojga drzwi. I need two doors.
Pójdę z trzydzieściorgiem siedmiorgiem kacząt. I’ll go with 37 ducklings.
And the one key difference from regular numbers? If you haven’t noticed already, it’s the instrumental. With numbers like pięć, you decline the noun together with the number in the instrumental (z pięcioma kotami), but not with collective numbers (z pięciorgiem kociąt).
I hope that my feeling that pięciorgiem has more of a ‘neuter noun’ vibe comes across, but if it doesn’t, I’m sure you’ll eventually develop a feel for the language yourself.