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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: Early or low teens?

Title page of the first edition of the Encyclo...
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Early or low teens?

Time and again, you hear or read an item featuring numbers, often written by professional writers, where the presentation of numbers is illogical. Does it matter? Well, it does to me. If language is to retain any meaning, we surely need to use it in a way which makes sense, don't we? Unless, of course, you subscribe to the view that all art is subjective and the artist must be allowed the freedom to convey whatever mood, attitude or impression he or she intended. Even in this, however, inaccurate language will cause a failure for such ambition, since the very inaccuracy will necessarily distort the responses of readers.

e.g. 'An articulation of elephant orifices undergoes an extraordinary undulation in determining the acuity of the random prognostications of potential irradiation therapies.'
This sentence employs the correct structural method and is grammatically sound. But it means absolutely nothing, because the words used aren't the right ones to convey meaning.

Okay, so what's all this got to do with the heading? Let me illustrate:

A weather report issues you with daily temperatures and states that these will be in the early teens.
A news report details the antics of a politician and his claims for expenses, telling you that these were in the late thousands.
A historian tells you that he has discovered bones that date back to the low centuries of the iron age.
A financier reports that the interest on an attractive bond issue will mature in the high twenties of the century.

All the foregoing are samples of items I've either heard or read. I'm sure you must've come across this sort of careless use of numbers on many occasions. The rules are simple enough to employ if you want to avoid joining the ranks of the ignorant or careless.

If the item has to do with degree or intensity; e.g. the heat in temperature, the amount spent in money, etc., then you need to refer to the 'high' or 'low' teens, twenties, hundreds, or whatever.

If the item relates to the passing of time; e.g. the age of something or someone, the number of seconds, minutes, hours, days, years taken, etc., then you need to use 'early' or 'late' teens, forties, thousands, or whatever.

So, does it matter that these writers/presenters mix up context in this way? Well, it indicates that they're unaware of the real meanings of the terms they're using, and doesn't that make you wonder if they know anything about what they're telling you? Confidence in written/spoken material is surely something we should all aim for, if what we have to report is going to carry the necessary weight for credibility.

6th December 1768 - 1st edition of "Encyclopedia Britannica" published in Scotland.

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