Oh my god, don’t use plural forms

By Andrew Smith

There is a magic thing called gettext. It’s magic because it allows some random Joe on the internet with no experience in programming to translate your application into his language. He does this by editing a .po file, then sends it to you, and you just include that file in your build system.

Ok there is some plumbing you need to enable that, but really it’s worth it.

In one of my applications I followed the advice in the gettext manual and used plural forms for messages. That is rather than saying “%d file(s)” the string had two forms: “%d file” (if %d is 1) and “%d files” (if %d is not one). This is specified in the po file like so:

“Plural-Forms: nplurals=2; plural= n!=1;\n”

msgid “%d file”
msgid_plural “%d files”
msgstr[0] “”
msgstr[1] “”

But of course different languages have different singular/plural rules. For example in Russian 0, 1, 2, and 5 have different plural forms. That means the russian translator has to figure out how this whole system works in order to translate strings with plural forms.

These translators are volunteers. That they do it at all is amazing. Having them read the gettext manual (which doesn’t have a lot of examples like it should) is disrespectful and unproductive. You will get fewer translations of not-as-good quality if you use plural forms.

I know, I learned this the hard way. One of my programs uses plural forms and another doesn’t. I have spent way too much time explaining to people how this works, and I am sure some of them ignored what I said and just gave me whatever compiles.

And believe me figuring this out isn’t easy. I mentioned the russian example – honestly I have no idea what the rules are exactly (who ever thinks of these things?) and I speak russian, and I maintain the application. How can I ask Joe random to understand this?

There you go. Use plural forms at your own peril. The gettext manual lies, plural forms are not a good thing and the problems they cause are bigger than the one problem they solve. I have just got a new translation, and guess what – the two strings with plural forms are untranslated. So I have to get a headache explaining this yet again, while kicking myself in the head for buying into the gettext dogma.