decimal

In talking about the and/zero alternation in year names (“two thousand and ten” versus “two thousand ten”), I quoted this comment proscribing the and:

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

I suggested that the noun “decimal” here should be replaced by “fraction”, on the grounds that numerical expressions involving fractions other than decimal fractions — 2 1/2, for instance — also require an and.

My amendment was predicated on the understanding that “decimal” in the comment above meant ‘decimal fraction’, a meaning that according to OED2 has been attested since 1651. This is a conversion by truncation — the adjective decimal converted to a noun by truncating the phrase decimal fraction.

But then a comment by michael on my “bald assertion” posting led me to entertain another possibility:

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.”

This appears to have decimal meaning ‘decimal point’ — another conversion by truncation, but one that has not yet made it into the OED. Ned Deily tells me that decimal is used this way in air traffic control: where American controllers use point (“three point one four” for 3.14), others use the more easily perceived decimal (“three decimal one four”).

(The generalization about and would still require amendment, since it applies to expressions that have fractions in them but lack decimal points.)

I’ll take up some other details, in particular the schoolteacher hypothesis that and stands for a decimal point, in another posting.

4 Responses to “decimal”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    When I wrote about this in January 2006 (The Word — don’t know if it’s linkable) I quoted this lovely comment, from an Australian sports fan posting on a broadcaster’s message board about the language of a famous soccer commentator:

    “I do not believe my ears. I think I heard Les Murray just say ‘two thousand five’ and ‘two thousand six’ when he obviously meant to say ‘two thousand and five’ and ‘two thousand and six.’ This is Australia, not the USA. If this poisonous infiltration of American-speak is going to infect the only decent TV station left to us, then I just give up.”

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

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « decimal […]

  3. Thomas Thurman Says:

    This is one of my favourite examples of cluelessness on Wikipedia talk pages:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:English_numerals#.22And.22

    “When spelling out an integer number in print or saying it out loud, using the word ‘and’ within the number is technically wrong,,, the use of “and” within a number is really *universally* incorrect.”

  4. Jerry Friedman Says:

    Here’s a massive discussion in alt.usage.english on how people in different English-speaking countries read and understand decimal numbers, starting with the “and” question.

    http://groups.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/browse_frm/thread/d17c0e4499bb516f/

    Among the digressions is one on reading the last four digits of American phone numbers: one-two-three-four or twelve thirty-four?

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