Ten to one

The One Big Happy from 8/7:

Ah, the ambiguity in ten to one, turning on two dfferent uses of to. Ruthie’s grandfather intends one sense, Ruthie gets another (closer to her everyday experience).

The relevant senses of the preposition to, from OED2, with my labels:

grandfather’s use: RATIO — Connecting the names of two things (usually numbers or quantities) compared or opposed to each other in respect of amount or value, as the odds in a wager or contest, the terms of a ratio, or the constituents of a compound: Against, as against.

Ruthie’s use: TIME — (So long) before (a definite future time); esp. in stating the time of day: (so many minutes) before (an hour). Opposed to past.

TIME uses. Ruthie’s use is everyday, though it depends on the ubiquity of clock time in our culture. Several prepositions are available for expressions denoting a time span before some event — a long time before / until / till / to the end of the story — and more specifically for expressions denoting a whole number of minutes in such a time span before a specific hour in clock time, as denoted by another whole number:  10 before / till / to / (AmE) of 1.

The time-span number in these can be any whole number, but it’s most commonly a “round number” divisible by 5: 5 / 10 / 15 (or a quarter) to 1. In addition, this round number lies between 5 and 25; higher values are referred instead to the preceding hour: instead of 35 before / to 2 we have 25 after / past 1, etc.

The end-point number is in the range 1 through 12 (with noon and midnight as alternatives to 12); perhaps some users of 24-hour clocks are comfortable with expressions like 10 to 16 (rather than 10 to 4), but they strike me as very odd, and are not easily attested.

The system of such expressions is undeniably complex, but they’re commonplace in our culture, where we’re accustomed to scheduling events quite precisely.

RATIO uses. Betting by odds-against is widespread, but far from ubiquitous, and only rarely engaged in by children, so it’s scarcely a surprise that such a reading of 10 to 1 doesn’t occur to Ruthie (even though her grandfather is talking about horse racing, a domain in which betting by odds-against is routine).

From Wikipedia:

Odds are a numerical expression, usually expressed as a pair of numbers, used in both gambling and statistics. In statistics, the odds for or odds of some event reflect the likelihood that the event will take place, while odds against reflect the likelihood that it will not. In gambling, the odds are the ratio of payoff to stake, and do not necessarily reflect exactly the probabilities. Odds are expressed in several ways …, and sometimes the term is used incorrectly to mean simply the probability of an event. Conventionally, gambling odds are expressed in the form “X to Y”, where X and Y are numbers, and it is implied that the odds are odds against the event on which the gambler is considering wagering. In both gambling and statistics, the ‘odds’ are a numerical expression of the likelihood of some possible event.

In the expression of gambling odds, odds-against, in the form X to Y, X and Y are not merely numbers; they are always whole numbers: 3 to 2, never 1.5 to 1 or 1½ to 1.

Ambiguity. Putting the two domains together, there’s a small collection of numerical expressions that are likely to be ambiguous between TIME and RATIO to: X to Y, where X is a multiple of 5 between 5 and 25 and Y is a whole number between 1 and 12. That’s 60 possibilities, reduced some (in the real world) by the rarity of horse races with post times at 9, 10, or 11 (local time) in the morning or evening. (Post times, of course, don’t respect people’s love for round numbers; 1:52 p.m. is an entirely ordinary post time.)

But that’s enough for cartoonist Rick Detorie to get a plausible example that could go either way.


One Response to “Ten to one”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    perhaps some users of 24-hour clocks are comfortable with expressions like 10 to 16 (rather than 10 to 4), but they strike me as very odd, and are not easily attested.

    I can’t say that I’ve ever heard or seen it. My impression is that English-speakers who use 24-hour time generally go for “military”-style time expressions, and thus would call that time 1550 (“fifteen-fifty”).

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