Bald assertion

Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman inaugurated the new year with a discussion of how to pronounce the name of the year:

All around the English-speaking world, pundits are wondering in print about how to pronounce the year 2010. Is it “twenty ten”, or “two thousand ten”, or “two thousand and ten”, or what?

(The choice of variant also comes up in written English, on occasions when year names are “written out” as phrases.)

Mark surveyed some opinion on this burning issue, and his posting elicited a huge number of comments (over a hundred the last I looked), some arguing for one usage over the others (with a variety of justifications), some offering other patterns for pronouncing year names (“twenty oh/aught nine” for 2009, for instance), plus discussions of the patterns in other languages (a topic Mark invited) and of ways of pronouncing other numerical expressions (as in “2010 bottles of beer” and in street addresses).

Almost all the writing on the pronunciation of 2010 is aimed at picking one variant as the “correct” one. That is, the writers generally subscribe to the One Right Way principle (probably without having formulated it), in roughly the following form: if no meaning difference can be discerned between expressions, then variation must be prohibited, with one expression designated as the one right way to express this meaning.

Eventually, a few of the commenters on Mark’s posting interrupted the passionate pursuit of One Right Way by objecting to the assumption. Why not, they asked, just tolerate variation? People should be free to choose whichever variant they like, in fact to choose different variants on different occasions. (It’s not like people have trouble understanding the variants.)

Then we get a comment from Mackenzie about the choice between “two thousand ten” and “two thousand and ten”:

That there’s no “and” should be obvious. “And” is only used in numbers when a decimal is involved.

(For “decimal”, read “fraction”, since the putative generalization here is supposed to cover things like 2 1/2, read as “two and a half” and not as “two a half”.)

There are three notable features of Mackenzie’s comment. First, it assumes One Right Way with regard to the and/zero alternation in numerical expressions, including year names. Second, it makes the choice of this one way according to what I’ve called “rigid complementarity”, building on the fact that and is obligatory in certain contexts to insist that it is permissible only in those contexts (the “only” in Mackenzie’s comment is significant), with zero obligatory elsewhere. And third, Mackenzie offers the “only used in numbers when a decimal is involved” generalization as a bald assertion.

My rigid-complementity posting discusses the first two points and has further detail on the and/zero alternation. One relevant detail is that British speakers tend to prefer the and variant, American speakers the zero variant — the American preference probably resulting from the advice given by some American schoolteachers (serious usage handbooks make no recommendation for either variant, so far as I can tell).

When people make bald assertions like Mackenzie’s, if I have the opportunity to ask them how they know these things, I usually get one of two answers:

(a) [often in bafflement] Everybody knows that!
(b) That’s what I was taught in school.

These people usually have no interest in hearing about actual practice, even of elite writers and speakers. The Language Lords have spoken.

As for the original three-way choice for 2010 as a year name, David Crystal has suggested that “twenty ten” is likely to be the dominant choice, since it’s the shortest of the three. (But, of course, there’s no reason to insist that the dominant choice be the only acceptable choice; see my discussion of the tyranny of the majority as a principle of usage.)

11 Responses to “Bald assertion”

  1. michael Says:

    my understanding of mackenzie’s comment is she was referring to the pattern, taught by some teachers (including mine), that the ‘and’ stands for the decimal in numbers such as “12.2″ which would be pronounced ‘twelve and two tenths.” the important effect of this rule (at least according to my teacher) was that a number like 101 was *not* to be pronounced “one hundred and one” but simply “one hundred one.”

    omit needless ‘ands’ perhaps — combined with a fear of all garden path effects. heaven forbid that for a split second, someone intends to indicate “101″ and i think they’re about to refer to “100.1″. how are we supposed to recover from such confusion?

  2. mae Says:

    It may be only teachers, not handbooks, but teachers are powerful. In elementary school we were DRILLED on never saying AND in the middle of integers of any length or size at all. If you got the correct answer to an arithmetic problem with an integer result, but said AND when reading it aloud you were WRONG. It’s very hard to get over that kind of experience, even by diligent reading of Language Log and your blog. (Didn’t you have teachers who did that?)

    My grandchildren aren’t being drilled much in arithmetic in school — nowadays they leave it to parents. So this rigidity might go away some day.

  3. Cirret Says:

    It’s entirely normal to use “and” when speaking whole numbers in UK English; I’ve never heard any suggestion that it was incorrect to do so. The US form sounds a little odd to me.

  4. decimal « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Bald assertion [...]

  5. Year names (cont.) « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] By arnoldzwicky An assortment of topics following up on my “bald assertion” posting and comments on it. That posting was itself a follow-up to a recent Language Log posting by Mark [...]

  6. John Cowan Says:

    The and variant is the natural one for English; Americans before the 20th century used it consistently, and Americans who resisted indoctrination (like me) use it consistently too.

  7. Rick Says:

    I absorbed the American indoctrination. In writing a novel, historical fantasy set in a para-English milieu, I had to will myself to write ‘seven hundred and twelve’ (or whatever). It sounded better that way, but my inner 5th grade teacher kept insisting that it was wrong.

  8. BrianM Says:


    “hundred one Dalmatians” – 49,000 hits
    “hundred one Dalmations” – 86,700 hits
    “hundred and one Dalmatians” – 929,000 hits
    “hundred and one Dalmations” – 380,000 hits

    Is the anti-”and” prescription linked with a campaign of disinformation about how to spell “Dalmatian”?

  9. MikeB Says:

    My grandmother carefully explained to me that the convention of using “and” only at the decimal point was established to make numbers on checks uniform for the banks. When I asked why I had to do it that way, since it didn’t see any error in “one hundred and 2 dollars” it, she said it was strictly for the banks and didn’t matter anywhere else. She was educated in Ireland, so this may have been her own rationalization for why she had to change.

  10. Julie Says:

    If the “and” variant were not the norm, teachers would not feel compelled to drill students on the null variant. Mine did, although maybe not quite as assiduously as Mae’s. But no (non-teacher) adult I ever heard left out the “and” in a number. So…I say the “and,” most of the time, but don’t write it down. And by insisting on such obvious absurdities, several of my teachers lost all credibility with me.

    Oh…and “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” is an English book. No American teachers were involved.

  11. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Julie: “If the “and” variant were not the norm, teachers would not feel compelled to drill students on the null variant.”

    That’s not quite the way things work. Teachers (and usage critics) object to usages that (they believe) are reasonably common. It’s not at all necessary that these deprecated usages be in fact the norm.

    As for “The Hundred and One Dalmatians”, yes, the original book was English. But there have been a variety of incarnations, including some from American sources — some preserving the original title, others Americanizing it to the juxtaposed form.

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