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Is there a preference as to when to use cardinal numbers vs collectives when referring to groups of people with the numbers two and three? I was told that collective numerals sound best with the number two, and cardinal numbers sound best with the number three.

Там НЕ́ бы́ло ДВОИ́Х / ДВУХ МУЖЧИ́Н

Я помо́г ДВОИ́М / ДВУМ МУЖЧИ́НАМ по́сле рабо́ты

ТРО́Е МУЖЧИ́Н / ТРИ МУЖЧИ́НЫ сказа́ли, что они́ меня́ ви́дели в магази́не позавчера́

Там НЕ́ бы́ло ТРОИ́Х / ТРЁХ МУЖЧИ́Н

ТРОИ́М / ТРЁМ МУЖЧИ́НАМ по́сле рабо́ты

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  • I was just told this too : > Там НЕ́ бы́ло ДВУХ МУЖЧИ́Н > Я помо́г ДВУМ МУЖЧИ́НАМ по́сле рабо́ты > ТРО́Е МУЖЧИ́Н сказа́ли, что они́ меня́ ви́дели в магази́не позавчера́. > Там НЕ́ бы́ло ТРЁХ МУЖЧИ́Н > ТРЁМ МУЖЧИ́НАМ по́сле рабо́ты Thanks for your input! Oct 9, 2016 at 9:34
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    @Cocopop why did you change "collective numerals" to "collective numbers"?
    – Quassnoi
    Dec 31, 2023 at 1:18
  • @Quassnoi Sorry, that was an oversight.
    – CocoPop
    Dec 31, 2023 at 16:49

2 Answers 2

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If you already have rather good skills in Russian, your question has been fully answered in this part of Современный русский язык: Учебник / Под редакцией Н.С. Валгиной. Since this book is available online for free, I recommend reading it in its entirety. It will improve your Russian even if you're a native speaker :)


If you don't yet know enough Russian to comprehend this book, here's my short translation.

Collectives differ from cardinals by shorter area of usage:

  1. Collectives can be used as countable for nouns used in plural form only, e.g. ворота, сутки.
  2. Collectives can be used with the nouns дети, люди, лицо (in the sense of human being) and with nouns like ребята, волчата colloquially.
  3. The usage of collectives is limited by formality; cardinals are preferred in official contexts. Требуются на работу четыре инженера not (четверо инженеров).

Collectives are not used with:

  1. Feminine nouns or with nouns describing females, e.g. три страницы (not трое страниц), четыре сестры (not четверо сестёр).
  2. Masculine nouns that are names of animals and birds, три быка, три орла (not трое быков, трое орлов).

It is acceptable to use collectives as a variant form of cardinals with nouns having the following meanings:

  1. Male human beings, четверо учеников и четыре ученика
  2. Objects that only have a plural form except двое, трое, четверо, e.g. пятеро ножниц и пять ножниц
  3. With personal pronouns: их было четверо, пригласили нас четверых. It's preferable to use cardinals with oblique cases: с ними четырьмя, у них четырех
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  • Thank you very much! I will definitely check that book out that you recommended. I have a relatively decent passive understanding of Russian but I want to know everything about these details for complete mastery. I have many questions that I haven't been able to find the answers for in books but it may be due to my own ignorance of not knowing where, exactly, to be able to find those particular answers. Oct 9, 2016 at 11:25
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I don't know how orthodox my opinion is, but to me, collective numbers rather refer to previously mentioned people or those who are going to be the subject, whereas cardinals, accordingly, refer to people spoken of in passing who are not the focus of the statement.

When I hear "двоих мужчин", I immediately think of two certain men I must either already know of or am going to be told about.

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