67. Numbers in Spoken English

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Numspeak

Spoken numbers often differ from written ones and are frequently said incorrectly as a result

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THE PROBLEM OF SPOKEN NUMBERS

Numbers are fairly common in academic and professional communication, whether in dates, phone numbers, addresses, percentages, sums of money, sports scores, statistics or similar. They are not usually a problem in writing, but in speaking and reading aloud there are some characteristic errors that people with a different mother tongue from English often make. The reason in most cases is that full information about saying the number is absent when the number is written in numerical form instead of words.

In this post I wish to set out a number of differences between written and spoken numbers in English so as to highlight the speaking errors that they cause. More on common speaking errors can be read in the post 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud.

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PROBLEMS IN SAYING AND WRITING ENGLISH NUMBERS

1. Alternatives to “zero”

English does not always represent the idea of “nothing” with the word zero. Other possibilities are nought, nothing, none, oh, nil, love and a duck. The choice usually depends on the kind of English or the kind of “nothing” involved. American English would probably use zero for all of the following preferences in British English:
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ADJECTIVE USE (TEMPERATURE): zero or nought (zero/nought degrees Celsius).
ADJECTIVE USE WITH OTHER NOUNS: zero (Their efforts had zero success/Zero marks were given).
NOUN USE (QUANTITIES): zero or nought or nothing (The answer is zero/nought/nothing).
THE NAME OF THE SYMBOL: a nought or a zero (Write a nought/a zero).
A DIGIT IN A LARGER NUMBER: oh (602 = six-oh-two).
A SCORE IN FOOTBALL, RUGBY & HOCKEY: nil.
A SCORE IN CRICKET: nought or zero or (informally) a duck.
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In tennis both American and British English use the word love except in tie-breaks, where zero is preferred.
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2. Differences between Spoken and Written Dates

Dates are given differently in British and American English, and within each of these varieties the written form may be different from the spoken. In American English, dates begin with the month. In writing, this can be a word or a number, the punctuation varying accordingly, e.g. December 10, 2013 (note the comma) or 12-10-2013. Speaking uses the word: “December ten, twenty thirteen”. On occasion one might hear tenth or the tenth instead of ten.
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British English dates begin with the day number. Writing will use either all numbers, separated by slashes, e.g. 10/12/2013, or numbers mixed with the word form of the month without surrounding commas or slashes, e.g. 10(th) December 2013. The use of -th is optional. In speaking, on the other hand, -th is necessary and also the … of … (“the tenth of December twenty thirteen”).
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These differences between speaking and writing are maintained even during reading aloud. In other words, if you are reading aloud and you encounter a date, you should ignore the way it is written and say it according to the appropriate rule for spoken English dates (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud).
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3. Grammar of “dozen”, “hundred”, “thousand” and “million”

The main grammatical questions regarding these words are their uses with a, one and -s. In many situations, a is preferred to one, like this:
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(a) There were at least a dozen/a hundred/a thousand/a million people present.
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One is used instead of a in the following situations:
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I.    For emphasis, for example to mean “one not two”.
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II.   For formality (as defined in the post 46. How to Avoid”I”, “We” and “You”), for example in laboratory instructions:
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(b) Add one gram of powder.
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III. In the middle of large numbers. For example, in 5132 one would normally say “one (not a) hundred”. The only times when you can say a in a large number are at the start of 100-199; 1,000; 1,000,000; 1,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000.
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IV. Before thousand, million, billion and trillion when they are followed by more numbers. For example, 1500 is “one (not a) thousand, five hundred”. This rule does not apply to hundred: 163 is fully able to begin with either a or one.
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The plural of all these words sometimes has -s and sometimes does not. The choice depends on whether or not there is another number in front.  If there is (e.g. “two dozen” or “five thousand”) -s is absent; but otherwise -s must be used, along with a following of (e.g. “millions of people”).
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4. Use of “and” in Spoken Numbers

Spoken numbers in American English do not have to have and, but in British English they mostly do when they are greater than 100. Thus, American speakers can say a hundred twenty two, but British speakers would add and after hundred. The British English rule is that and is usually necessary after every mention of the word hundred. But note:
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(i) It is dropped when the next two digits are 00 (e.g. 6, 200 = “six thousand, two hundred”).
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(ii) It is said after “thousand” when the last three digits of the number are less than 100 (e.g. 5,026 = “five thousand and twenty-six”). If there are no thousands either (e.g. 5,000, 047), and will follow million (“five million and forty-seven”).
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Here are some more numbers to practise with (answers in brackets):
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1. 7,916  (Seven thousand, nine hundred and sixteen
2. 56,018 (Fifty-six thousand and eighteen)
3. 4,202,881 (Four million, two hundred and two thousand, eight hundred and eighty-one)
4. 1,020,693  (One million, twenty thousand, six hundred and ninety-three)
5. 26,300,805 (Twenty six million, three hundred thousand, eight hundred and five)
6. 100,600 (One hundred thousand, six hundred)
7. 300,403,001 (three hundred million, four hundred and three thousand and one)
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5. Pronunciation of “and”

When and is spoken, it should be fast and weak (i.e. without stress – see 125. Stress and Emphasis). In other words, the “a” vowel must be pronounced not/æ/ but /ə/, and might even disappear altogether. The final /d/ is often not said either. Possible pronunciations of and are thus /ənd/ or /nd/ or /ən/ or even /n/. For more, see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly.
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6. Spoken Telephone Numbers

British English speakers say telephone number digits individually – not grouped into pairs. Thus, 0801 849 1765 is said “oh eight oh one, eight four nine, one seven six five”. The spaces/commas indicate major divisions within the number (e.g. between country and area codes), where there should be a pause in speaking. The only numbers that need not be pronounced individually are -00 at the end of the first division. For example, 0800 … is likely to be pronounced “oh eight hundred” rather than “oh eight oh oh”.
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7. Decimal Numbers

Where some languages use a comma to separate a whole number from a decimal fraction, English uses a full stop, e.g. 39.256, but gives it the special name “decimal point”. When a decimal number is spoken, the decimal point is indicated by the word “point”. Before it, one can say the number either in the normal way (“thirty nine …”) or digit by digit (“three nine …”). From the decimal point onwards, however, only digit-by-digit enunciation is possible (“… point two five six”). Any noun used after a decimal number is usually in the plural form, for example “nought/zero point five litres.
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2 thoughts on “67. Numbers in Spoken English

  1. Excellent! I was looking for a resource to explain the American pronunciation of mile markers. For example, mile marker 119 is “one,nineteen.” Although this particular pronunciation wasn’t included in your original post, I still found it very helpful and will be recommending it to my students! Thank you.

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