Year names (cont.)

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 Liberman on readings of the year name 2010 and was linked to a fairly extensive “rigid complementarity” posting of mine. The candidates for readings:

(a) two thousand ten
(b) two thousand and ten
(c) twenty ten

In the (a) and (b) variants, the year name is read in the same way as number names (as in “2010 bottles of beer”). I’ll call these number readings. The (a) variant has no and; the parts of the number name are simply juxtaposed, in a juxtaposed number reading. The (b) variant has the coordinator and before its final element, in a conjoined number reading.

In the (c) variant, the reading is bipartite, the first element naming the century, the second the year within that century.

1. Virtues of the variants. The variants have different virtues. The number readings have the same pattern as number names, and are in general subject to the same conditions as number names. In particular, people who object to conjoined number readings for year names do so as part of a general objection to number names that are coordinate in form; for such people, counting

one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two, one hundred and three,…

is just wrong, as wrong as “two thousand and ten” for the year 2010.

The conjoined variants have the virtue of explicitly marking the structure of number names, while the juxtaposed variants have the virtue of brevity. (It’s that old trade-off between clarity and brevity.)

The bipartite variants are generally unavailable — well, marginal at best for most people — for number names, as in “twenty ten bottles of beer”. As many have noted, they are also unavailable, or at least highly disfavored, for some years: “nineteen one” is ok for 1901, but “twenty one” is dubious for 2001, because it could be understood, especially in speech, as referring to 21 (though context can make things clear). (The interpretation can be made clear via variants like “twenty oh/aught one”, or, if the century is clear from context, ‘oh/aught one”.)

2. Consistency. Some discussions of the choice of variant insist on consistency in year names. As a result, thanks to the problem with bipartite readings for years like 2001, these critics will insist on number readings all around.

But insisting on a rigid consistency in choosing variants is just a piece of language ideology. There’s nothing wrong with choosing one variant in some contexts, another in others — either for good reason (clarity in some cases, brevity in others) or just as a whim of the moment.

3. Different numerical expressions. This discussion has focused on number names and year names, but there are other types of numerical expressions, in particular those containing decimal fractions (3.14) or other fractions (2 1/2), and the closely related case of monetary expressions ($2.27). (Then there’s street addresses, highway numbers, and an assortment of other cases.) I don’t propose to survey this material here, but I have to say something about fractional expressions, because American schoolteacher lore connects these expressions to number names (including number readings of year names).

The big thing to say about readings of fractional expressions is that they are obligatorily conjoined in form: “three and fourteen hundredths” for 3.14 (though there are also variants in which the decimal portion of the name is read as a sequence of digits, separated from the whole number portion of the name by point or decimal: “three point/decimal one four”; on decimal, see here), “two and a half” for 2 1/2).

The function of and in such readings is two-fold: it expresses additive semantics (that is, it’s the and of addition), and by separating the whole number and fractional parts of these expressions, it makes them easier to parse and harder to mis-parse: “three fourteen hundredths” really won’t do as a reading of 3.14.

Monetary expressions like $2.27 can be read as containing a decimal fraction, in which case they have an and: “two and twenty-seven hundredth dollars”. Or they can be read in two parts, in which case an and is not required: “two dollars (and) twenty-five cents”. (The full range of usages is more complex than this.) What I don’t know is if those who insist on juxtaposed readings for nuumber names also insist on the juxtaposed readings — “two dollars twenty-five cents”.)

4. The American schoolteacher’s proscription. Back to advice given by some American schoolteachers (and taken to heart by some of their students), proscribing the conjoined readings for number names. As I noted in earlier postings, this advice seems to be peculiar to American schools — I have yet to get a report of such teaching in British schools, and speakers of British English are generally mystified by it, noting (as commenter Cirret does) that the conjoined readings sound fine to them and are common in UK English — and is not given in usage handbooks, American or otherwise. It seems to be a piece of American schoolteacher lore.

Commenter mae on my “bald assertion” posting speaks feelingly on the way the proscription was enforced in her school days:

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?)

I was in fact afflicted by such teaching myself, but eventually listened to speakers, especially educated ones, around me, noticed that they often used the conjoined variant, and decided the advice was a crock. I’ve been happily conjoining ever since. And my daughter does too (and, now, my grand-daughter as well).

At least the teaching mae got didn’t lead her into actual error; she still had the perfectly acceptable juxtaposed variant available to her. But I have come across people who have taken the proscription against the conjoined variant so much to heart that they peeve about it, labeling it a mistake and berating people who use it.

British speakers tend to find the juxtaposed variant a bit off (as Cirret does in a comment on “bald assertion”) and American-sounding. They see it as a somewhat problematic truncation, a failure to Include All Necessary Words.

Some American speakers, on the other hand, see the conjoined variant as a problematic pleonasm, a failure to Omit Needless Words.

5. Justification for the American proscription. The root of the proscription is almost surely a form of the One Right Way dogma, in which variation that doesn’t express meaning differences is to be prohibited; see the discussion in my “rigid complementarity” posting. In this case, the variation is eliminated by applying the umbrella advice Omit Needless Words.

Still, the number names case is an unusual one. Typically, the dicta Omit Needless Words and Include All Necessary Words are offered as justifications “after the fact”, wielded against usages that a critic already judges to be suspect on social or stylistic grounds — usages that the critic takes to be non-standard, too colloquial, etc. But I know of no such considerations in choosing variants for number names.

But there is another, “theoretical”, justification for proscribing the conjoined variants of number names. Here’s commenter michael on the subject, beginning with another piece of school lore, namely

the pattern, taught by some teachers (including mine), that the ‘and’ stands for the decimal [point] in numbers such as “12.2″ which would be pronounced ‘twelve and two tenths.”

and continuing with the enforcement of “rigid complementarity” (use and only where it is required, zero otherwise, thus eliminating a choice between the two variants).

I don’t know where the idea that and in fractional number names is a pronunciation for a decimal point comes from. Possibly from some teacher’s effort to get students to use and correctly with decimal fractions. (Much mischief in usage advice arises from well-meaning but misguided attempts to give students very simple rules.) As I noted above, this account of and in fractional numbers is imperfect in several respects. Combining it with rigid complementarity just compounds the mischief.

There’s one more possible ingredient in this mix of dubious assumptions and hypotheses. Commenter michael notes Omit Needless Words as a contribution to proscribing conjoined variants of number names and goes on to suggest that it might be

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?

This is a topic dear to my heart: what I called in a Language Log posting last year “temporary potential ambiguity” (TPA). The title of the posting was “Once you look for temporary potential ambiguity, you’ll find it everywhere”, which suggests pretty clearly my opinion of the idea that TPA is to be avoided. More specifically, in a discussion of a prohibition against once as a subordinator (as in the title of my TPA posting), I wrote:

Clearly, the perceived problem is that if a clause begins with once, this word cannot be interpreted uniquely at the point at which it is read or heard. But seeing this as a problem is profoundly silly. It would be wrong to demand that the interpretation of the first word of a sentence be uniquely determined, or even that the unfolding interpretation must be determinable within a few word. This is occasionally so, but in general that’s just not the way sentence processing works.

Like I said, profoundly silly.

18 Responses to “Year names (cont.)”

  1. James D Says:

    Okay, I’m a Brit. I’ll bite. “Two thousand ten” just sounds wrong, as do all numbers over 100 without the “and”. You might be able to slip it past people as a sloppy colloquialism, but it’s not the sort of thing you would say in any semi-formal situation. I imagine the British equivalent of your American schoolteacher would have a fit about this.

    For me:
    nineteen o six — correct, preferred
    nineteen hundred and six — correct, but absurdly formal
    *nineteen and six — incorrect, unless you meant a sum of pre-1971 money
    *nineteen six — incorrect, unless it were a rugby result
    *nineteen hundred six — incorrect

    twenty ten — correct, preferred
    two thousand and ten — correct, slightly formal
    *two thousand ten — incorrect
    *twenty and ten — incorrect, and it wouldn’t even make sense as money

    The real oddity is why “two thousand and six” is preferred over “twenty o six”. The latter would be understood perfectly, but didn’t seem to get much use in Britain.

    PS — I know tone of voice doesn’t carry well on the internet. I’m not a prescriptivist at all, before anyone misreads me.

  2. nacbrie Says:

    “three and fourteen hundredths”

    I am slightly confused – is 3.14 *ever* called ‘three and fourteen hundredths’? ‘Three point one four’ is 4 syllables versus 6, and avoids the ‘dths’ ending which I find nearly impossible to say. (I’m not saying that one is ‘correct’, just that if it really is used it must be a terrible mouthful and highly confusing when dealing with calculations)

    I would call 3 14/100 ‘three and fourteen hundredths’ (or ‘three and seven fiftieths’) unless I was in a rush, but would probably wonder why it wasn’t changed to ‘three point one four’, ‘three hundred and fourteen over a hundred’ or ‘three one four over a hundred’.

    (British/Irish speaker who was schooled through metric)

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To nacbrie: you can google up piles of instructions on how to write and say decimal fractions, with the models in just this form. Plus hits for things like:

    The gun is four feet eight and one-half inches long, the bore is three and thirteen-hundredths inches and the gun weighs about thirteen hundred pounds. (link)

    Maybe it’s an American thing.

  4. nacbrie Says:

    @ arnoldzwicky

    Thanks for that – my google-fu had failed me.

    On reflection, it’s probably an age thing, where it’s fallen out of use relatively recently here (or at least amongst my circle). A quick straw poll of available family members suggests that nobody would have blinked an eye at the expression (especially from an older person) 30 years ago.

  5. Catanea Says:

    Having been taught to count by my (English-born) grandmother, I learned to say “one hundred and one” or even “a hundred and one” and was mercilessly drilled out of this habit at school like mae. I mention it here because I was simultaneously drilled out of saying “double” in any number or spelling – “bee, ee, double L, ess” to spell “bells”, for example, or “three double-oh six” for an address or ‘phone number containing 3006. It had to be “bee, ee, ell, ell, ess” and “three zero zero six”. The arrival of James Bond amazed me because “Double-oh Seven” became permissible. I wonder if there is generally an association between the prohibition of “double-x” forms and of the use of “and” in pronouncing numbers above 100?

    [(amz) Conjoined variants for number names and “double-x” readings for numbers and spellings are both British practices, but otherwise I don’t think they are connected.]

  6. Odd Thomas Says:

    One point that seems absent here is the basis in positional notation–the mathematical reasoning behind calling off the values left to right in powers of ten, such as: three hundred | twenty | six thousand | four hundred | forty | one. The saying of “and” throughout doesn’t hamper this, but it adds verbal clutter. Other languages and other systems pronounce numbers quite differently, and that suits them, but I find the “and”-free way clean and elegant.

  7. Coby Lubliner Says:

    I am not a native English-speaker. I was taught British English before settling in the US at the age of 15. I’ve never become an exclusive user of either the juxtaposed or the conjoined variant of number names, except when writing checks, where the space saving due to omitting “and” (except, of course, before “xx/100”) can be significant.

    But I can think of another advantage of the consistency provided by the juxtaposed variant: it simplifies the teaching of number names to learners of English. With conjoined number names you have to formulate rules about when to use “and”: not between tens and units (ninety-nine, not ninety and nine), nor between thousands and hundreds (two thousand five hundred, not two thousand and five hundred), but yes between hundreds and lesser numbers or between thousands and numbers smaller than 100, and so on.

    Take, for example, Spanish-speakers, in whose language the naming of numbers near 100 is exactly the opposite of that in British English: ninety-nine is noventa y nueve, one hundred and one is ciento uno.

  8. Vireya Says:

    The conjoined reading is not just “fine” to this Australian, it is the way I was taught that such numbers “are” pronounced. “Two thousand ten” is the sort of thing I would have been told off for as a child, not that it would have ever occurred to me to say it, because I didn’t hear numbers said in that way until much later in my life. I didn’t notice that Americans said numbers that way until 2001.

  9. Chargone Says:

    In New Zealand, that i’ve noticed, no one’s yet settled on How to say 2010 and so on. the 2001-2009’s were easy, as the ‘and’ merges into the ‘thousand’ to the point where if it’s even said or not is highly debatable, so far as i can tell, but it is written.

    that said, when it comes to numbers:

    for years, it’s been ‘nineteen ninety’, the bipartite form, for as long as i’ve been alive. though you do get the ‘nineteen o one’ form for the first few years of the earlier centuries, and prior to AD 1000 the years form the same as normal numbers. on the other hand, regular numbers get ‘one hundred and ninty nine thousand, seven hundred and thirty two point five nine seven six three’, the and is Always after a hundred, even if that hundred is hundreds of thousands or hundreds of millions.

    for fractions you get an ‘and’ instead of the ‘point’ so it’s ‘seventy two and four fifths’, but 4.913 would Never be ‘four and nine hundred and thirteen thousandths’. it’s ‘four point nine one three’. Always. come to think of it, most people would look at 4 913/1000 and go ‘oh, they put a space in their by accident’ and then divide 4,913 by 1000 to get 4.913 … or divide 913 by 1000 and be confused about what the 4 is supposed to be doing.
    that last bit not so much for older people, admittedly.

    as for money, well.. that’s a bit different. when it’s a given that money is what you’re talking about, $9999.99 is often said, at least in ads on tv, as ‘ninety nine ninety nine ninety nine’, while both $9999 and $99.99 would be said as ‘ninety nine ninety nine’. the number Displayed is the appropriate one, and fairly clear, and any confusion is eliminated by the utter silliness of applying the wrong price to the wrong object, but still.
    even the words ‘dollars’ and ‘cents’ are typically left out. Except! if the entire number is in cents, the word ‘cents’ is used, and if it is a dollar value of only one or two digits with no cents, or a round number of dollars, the word ‘dollars’ is used.

    that said, the cashier is as likely to ask you for ‘twenty seven dollars and seventy cents’ as ‘twenty seven seventy’. it seems to depend how often a number comes up. it’s very common for individual items to have prices in round numbers, strings of nines, or ending in 5s. on the other hand, the number rung up at the checkout can be all sorts of crazy things due to the possible combinations. *shrugs*

    the American droping of ‘and’ from the numbers thus doesn’t bother me… until it shows up instead of the ‘point’ for a decimal number. that throws me off. it’s use for fractions is a non-issue, though the use of a fraction when reading off a decimal makes me wonder why they go to the extra effort. hardly ‘leave out unnecessary words’ is it? hehe.

  10. mollymooly Says:

    My assumption was AmE was always juxtaposed and BrE was always conjoined; it would seem AmE is variable. This is a category of mistake I predicted several days ago would exist; I didn’t have to go far to prove myself right 🙂 I still believe BrE is always conjoined.

    [(amz) For various reasons, it’s hard to search for juxtaposed variants in BrE, but they’re there. There’s the One Hundred One Club and a (dumb-blonde, alas) joke about a “seven hundred ten”, for instance.]

    I find the use of “fourth” rather than “quarter” markedly American, although I am aware on this point that AmE is variable (and BrE to a lesser extent). I surmise some Americans make a Useful Distinction between “quarter” for a fraction of a unit, and “fourth” for a percentage of a quantity, but find it difficult to search for evidence.

  11. Layra Says:

    American here. This is actually the first I’ve heard of a proscription against “and” in integers (also my first encounter with the term “decimal fraction”).
    The only time I’ve ever left out the “and” is year names and counting (ordinals). In other words, I’ll say “two thousand six” when referring to the year, but I’d never say “two thousand six years since the birth of Jesus”; when playing hide-and-seek I’ll count “One hundred one, one hundred two, one hundred three”, but never “one hundred one sheep, one hundred two sheep, one hundred three sheep”.
    Perhaps this is case of trying to distinguish between ordinals and cardinals, wherein the “and” gives semantic information.

    I normally use bipartite for year names, or just the last two digits when I can get away with it, but when I can’t I treat the year names as ordinals, ordering the years instead of counting them.

    I’m from Boston, if that makes a difference; could be the proximity of multiple universities with large numbers of international students and faculty. Could be just a university thing, or a regional thing, but everyone I knew growing up talked this way.

    @Odd Thomas: so what do you do with 101? One hundred | | one?
    I’ve always treated such strings as lists, using the “and as addition” idea. “(Three hundred and twenty six) thousand and four hundred and forty one” becomes “three hundred and twenty six thousand four hundred and forty one”.

  12. Uncle Glenny Says:

    AmE here; in my 50s.

    I’m a juxtaposer (juxtaposeur?) for whole numbers, although I don’t think it was beaten into me. Perhaps ironically, I’m a proponent of the serial (Oxford) comma. It’s only in recent years that I’ve written much in the way of free-form prose since high school, outside of stylized environments like technical documentation, where stylized presentation and graphic elements can be used to reduce ambiguity. (And that experience tends to make me quite disconcerted concerned about clarity.)

    The conjoined form to me seems, well, pointless (again, for whole numbers), especially taken in the context of verbalizing numbers past the thousands.

    btw, I wonder if “three and fourteen hundredths” may be an age thing – taught that was at some point in elementary school due to dollars and cents, effectively – as I can’t imagine myself saying it, but it sounds natural if old-fashioned to me.

    As for years, I’m with “twenty ten.” Numbers which denote years are usually known to be years, and generally fall within a narrow range, outside of which more disambiguating markers come in (“B.C.E.”).

    Somewhat related, something I saw recently on encyclopedic numeric knowledge:

  13. Selina Says:

    As a visiting scholar here from Kenya which has its education curriculum based on the British system, I find it interesting when I hear my American friends say , ‘ That will have to be a dollar seventy five ( $1.75) or one half ( 11/2).’ These friends of mine are usually quick to defend themselves by saying that is the only way to say.’We grew up omitting all the unnecessary words in sentence structures. It right to do so… ‘coz it is how it should be’, one friend argued. Anyways I am beginning to realize how informal AmerE is as opposed to BrE .

    As a matter of fact, all my friends here keep complaining about how formal and boring my English is. And with all these variations, I usually go for what sounds right rather than what is expected to be correct.

  14. The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Which Is the Correct Way to Say the Current Year — “Twenty Ten” or “Two Thousand Ten”? Says:

    […] you wish for yourself, but there is no reason to treat one as right and the other as wrong. Prof. Arnold Zwicky has more […]

  15. TennLion Says:

    The only time I heard the “and” discouraged was in writing checks (cheques to you Brits)–The “and” only went before the decimal cents so those poor saps coding the magnetic numbers on the bottom did not mis-read the amount.

  16. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To TennLion: in addition to Americans who were taught *never* to use and in number names (except before the cents in writing checks), a fair number of Americans got no such instruction (though they were taught to use and before the cents in writing checks), and still others got the instruction but disregarded it. The result is considerable variation in AmE.

  17. Uncle Glenny Says:

    Indeed, I was taught (by My Father The Banker) to, when writing checks, to use “and” between dollars and cents when writing out the amount. Also to terminate the amount with “only” if it could be extended: “one thousand only”

  18. Jerome Rainey Says:

    I was taught that the “and” is correct around here, by teachers and other authorities. Either way sounds fine to my ears, though it’s interesting that for Brits, “our” way sounds wrong.

    I like they way Jack Aubrey (in fictional 1812 or so) refers back to “the year one”.


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