In this blog, we’re looking at the number system in English, and also some expressions and idioms using numbers.
In English, we have two types of numbers. These are cardinal numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc.), which we use to count and say how many of something there are; and ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th etc.), which tell the position of something in a list, which we use for things we think of as fitting into a sequence. Let’s look at cardinal numbers first.
The cardinal numbers are 1 (one), 2 (two), 3 (three) etc. For a fun list going from 1 up to a vigintillion (1 followed by 63 zeros), go to mathisisfun.com.
Cardinal numbers are normally used when you:
- count things, e.g. I have three sisters / there are thirty days in June.
- say how old you are, e.g. Sarah is thirty-three years old / the baby is four months old.
- give your telephone number, e.g. Our phone number is 021 4551522
- give years, e.g. She was born in nineteen seventy-five (1975)
Numbers are usually written in the singular form, e.g. two hundred Euros (
two hundreds Euros), several thousand people ( several thousands people). We can use the plural with dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions, but only if there is no other number or quantifier (e.g. a few / several) beforehand, e.g. hundreds of Euros, thousands of people.
1-99: Remember to use a hyphen (-) when you write the numbers between 21 (twenty-one) and 99 (ninety-nine).
100+: In British and Irish English, we say “and” after 100, e.g. 127 is one hundred and twenty-seven. We still say “and” even if there is no hundred, e.g. 2,001 is two thousand and one. In American English, you do not need the “and”, e.g. one hundred twenty-seven, two thousand one.
We can say either one hundred or a hundred. It is the same rule for one thousand / a thousand and one million / a million. (But remember we can only say “a” at the beginning of the number)
1,000+: With long numbers, we usually divide them into groups of three which are divided by a comma (,) e.g. 5000000 (5 million) is normally written as 5,000,000. We do not use a period (.) or other symbols, so 5.000.000 and 5’000’000 are not correct.
Zero: We have different ways of talking about nothing!
We can say “zero” if we are talking about maths or science, eg. Water freezes at zero degrees.
When giving telephone numbers, we can say “oh” for the number 0. (021 4551522 is “oh, two, one, four, double-five, one, five, double-two.) In American English you can use zero instead of oh here.
In British and Irish English, but not so much in American English, we can say nought when we are giving numbers including zero. So 0.25 is “nought point two five”. And we can say nil if we are talking about scores, e.g. Cork City won the match by two goals to nil.
We also have informal slang terms for zero such as zilch and zip, e.g. How much money have you got? Zilch – I haven’t got any.
A billion: (1,000,000,000)
In English this number now is a billion. In the past, however, it used to be a thousand million and “a billion” used to be 1,000,000,000,000. American influence over the twentieth century caused the English-speaking world to accept their billion with 9 zeros instead of 12.
This can be very tricky because many countries count a billion as 1,000,000,000,000. This number in English is a trillion.
Because the numbers have changed, there is still occasionally some confusion with English speakers. If we need to be clear, we can always go back to saying a thousand million or a million million!
Numbers smaller than 1
Forming fractions is quite similar to forming ordinal numbers (SEE BELOW). 1/6 is one-sixth, 7/10 is seven-tenths. The exceptions are ½ which is one/a half and ¼ which is one/a quarter (in American English one/a fourth) .
If we combine a whole number and a fraction (e.g. 1 ½ ) , we think of the number 1 ½ as one idea and don’t separate it. We say one and a half lemons (NOT
one lemon and a half)
For very big fractions we can say x over y. E.g. 37/73 can be either thirty-seven seventy-thirds, but this sounds complicated, so we can also say thirty-seven over seventy-three.
We say “point” for the decimal point and do not use a comma. The numbers after the decimal point are said like a telephone number, so 0.2657 is nought/zero point two six five seven.
OK, we’ve looked at the basic cardinal numbering system in English. You can test yourself with a short crossword here if you want!
You can create most ordinal numbers by adding -TH to the end of a cardinal number (e.g. six → sixth / 6th, seven → seventh / 7th). The main exceptions are 1 (first / 1st), 2 (second / 2nd) and 3 (third / 3rd).
Ordinal numbers are normally used when you:
- give a date: My birthday is on the 27th of January. (Twenty-seventh of January)
- put things in a sequence or order: Liverpool came second in the football league last year.
- give the floor of a building: His office is on the tenth floor.
- have birthdays: He had a huge party for his twenty-first birthday.
Words we use with numbers:
Doing basic calculations, we use symbols such as +, -, x, ÷ etc. If you would like more, there is a list of common mathematical symbols here.
We use + (plus) to add, so 10 + 6 = 16 is ten plus six equals sixteen
We use – (minus) to subtract, so 10 – 6 = 4 is ten minus six equals four
We use x (times / multiplied by) to multiply, so 10 x 6 = 60 is ten times / multiplied by six equals sixty
We use ÷ (divided by) to divide, so 10 ÷ 6 = 1.666 is ten divided by six equals one point six six six
Number idioms and expressions:
Look at the title of this blog. What does it mean? Well, a dozen means 12, and half of 12 = 6, so six of one and half a dozen of the other means that two things are the same. For example, Would you prefer the red or the green car? Well, I need the car to drive, and the colour isn’t important, so it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, really. In other words, the read car is exactly the same as the red car for my purposes.
To see number expressions in context, here is a text using expressions with the number one. You can find the original as well as an MP3 of this at http://www.manythings.org/voa/words/39.html.
Today I will tell about expressions using numbers. Let us start with the number one. Numbers can be tricky. On the one hand, they are simply numbers. On the other hand, they have meanings. I for one use these expressions a lot.
Many people consider themselves number one, the most important person. They are always looking out for number one and taking care of number one. It is as if they are the one and only person on Earth. Some people however, are not so self-centered. My brother is such a person. It is true – no joke. I am not trying to pull a fast one on you.
First, you have to understand that my brother is one in a million. He is such a nice person. All his friends like him. They consider him one of the boys. Recently, my brother had a bad day at the office. It was just one of those days. Nothing went right. So he stopped at a local bar — a drinking place — after leaving work. My brother planned to have a glass of beer with his friends — a quick one – before he went home. But a quick one turned into one or two, and soon those became one too many.
As my brother was leaving, he ordered a last drink — one for the road. His friends became concerned. One by one, they asked him if he was able to drive home safely.
Now my brother is a wise and calm person. He is at one with himself. He recognizes when he has had too much alcohol to drink. So he accepted an offer for a ride home from a female friend.
At one time in the past, my brother had been in love with this woman. She is a great person — kind, thoughtful and intelligent — all good qualities rolled up into one. But sadly their relationship did not work. He always used to say “One of these days, I am going to marry this girl.” But that never happened.
For one thing, she did not love him as much as he loved her. It was just one of those things. The situation was regrettable and my brother had to accept it. But even now, he considers her the one that got away.
However, they are still friends. And because my brother had been kind to her, she felt that one good turn deserves another. He was good to her and she wanted to help him in return. So she drove him home.
If my brother had driven home from the bar that night, his number would have been up. Something bad would have happened. Thankfully he made it home safely. And, he and the woman are back to square one. They are back to where they started – being friends.
For idioms relating to other numbers, click on the image below.
You can find a list of number idioms and their meanings by clicking on the picture above, or going to http://www.idiomconnection.com/number.html. There are also expressions and phrases at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/number-phrases.html
There is a quiz to help you practise some number expressions at http://a4esl.org/q/h/9801/sb-idioms.html
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