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DEAR READER: Sometimes the world of numbers meshes with the world of grammar

Friday, July 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Philip J. Johnson, an MU professor of internal medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine, has a bone to pick.

After June's Show Me the Errors column, he wrote:

"When reporting (speaking, as on the local TV news) numbers with decimal places, reporters commonly refer to the numbers AFTER the decimal point as another number."

"Example: the number 3.54 would be 'spoken' as 'three point fifty four.'"

"Correctly, it SHOULD be 'spoken' as 'three point five four.'"

"Therefore, I am curious as to why journalists use the incorrect method so often? (albeit certainly not always)."

Obviously, Dr. Johnson has a passion about pronunciation and numbers. But, alas, I wasn't able to confirm his statement. For you see, as far as I can remember, I was never taught this "rule." Additionally, I often say, "I don't 'do' radio, but I can spell it right all day long," when trying to excuse my poor pronunciation skills vs. my stronger spelling skills.

A couple of colleagues agreed that they had not heard this rule, but, friends with a more scientific bent, readily agreed with Dr. Johnson. It should be "three point five four."

In an email exchange on the topic, I wrote to Dr. Johnson: "At copy editing conferences, we often talk about similar puzzles — what one person was told and remembers vs. what another person was told on the same topic. It's amazing how many of these don't match up."

He agreed about the who-heard-what-when conundrum and wrote, "Interesting to note your observations about the variability in the manner with which things are taught."

And he sent me a link to Oracle ThinkQuest, described on its website as "over 8,000 websites created by students around the world who have participated in a ThinkQuest Competition." It revealed several posts on the topic, most all agreeing with Dr. Johnson. (The site does not reveal the names of its contributors.)

The opening post reads: "Is there a correct way to read aloud decimal numbers? I was taught to say thirty-four point five seven. It grates on me to hear newsreaders saying thirty-four point fifty-seven. ... Is it now OK to read the numbers after the decimal point as a whole number?"

Most of the commenters agreed with the original post, but one response varied. Before providing an opinion on the pronunciation, the commenter wrote, "It is really quite silly, but so is most 'proper' stuff ... in my opinion."

And, then offered, "so, 135.23 is formally written (or read) 'one hundred thirty five and twenty three hundreths". But anyone with a clue will accept 'one hundred thirty five point twenty three'. [or even '...point two three']"

Well, that certainly muddied the water for me, but, because Dr. Johnson was so kind to care and write about it, I'm going with his preference for the pronunciation of numbers with decimals.

Reading further into the postings, though, I found a kindred spirit.

"Wow a bunch of Mathematicians philosophizing about semantics and usage! Isn't that some sort of violation of cerebral hemispheric conduct? You have stumbled into a debate that has been ongoing among grammaticians and linguists for a long time."

"It is the prescriptivists vs. the descriptivists."

"A prescriptivist says the RULES of language should define speech. A descriptivist says that usage (speech) should define the rules (these are the guys that added "ain't" and "DOH" to the dictionary)."

It created an instant flashback to the American Copy Editors Society conferences.

Another nod to science

Doug Kostyk, a longtime friend who is also a physicist whom I consulted on the pronunciation question, also called to remind me that an unusual event would occur June 30. A leap second was set for that Saturday immediately after 6:59:59 p.m. In the way the world usually works, the next recordable time should have been 7:00:00 p.m. Instead, it was 6:59:60 — a tiny added bonus for the day.

According to timeanddate.com, about every one and a half years, one extra second is added to Coordinated Universal Time and clocks around the world. This leap second accounts for the fact that the Earth's rotation around its own axis, which determines the length of a day, slows down over time while the atomic clocks we use to measure time tick away at almost the same speed over millions of years.

I'd love to tell you when the next one will occur, but apparently, no one knows. Earth, like life, is like that — it wobbles along in its usual way, and then it delivers a gift.

Since I had never heard of this itty-bitty blip in time, I'm happy to add it to my storehouse of arcane trivia.

June Show Me the Errors draws 22 participants

In June, there were 22 participants in Show Me the Errors, who collectively filed 68 corrections.

Jim Terry led the pack with 29 submissions. He was also the initial winner of the drawing for the contest prizes, a copy of "Regret the Error" and a Missourian T-shirt. He asked us to draw again, and this time the winner was Alexandria Baca, who also happened to be second in the number of submitted corrections with 14.

Alexandria just wrapped up the editing class in spring semester and warned us that she was going to be entering the contest this summer. I'm glad to know it wasn't an idle threat.

You can also join in with contributors to Show Me the Errors and its contest. There's an entry box at the end of each article at ColumbiaMissourian.com. Come join us and others in making the publication as error-free as possible.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. She's just started to read "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading — Finding and Losing Myself in Books" by Maureen Corrigan, NPR's "Fresh Air" book critic. It seems likely that she might get to know another kindred soul. 


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Comments

Ellis Smith July 13, 2012 | 8:50 a.m.

I agree with Dr. Johnson. Additionally, there's a system for conveniently handling mathematical operations involving large or very large numbers, or small or very small (decimal fraction) numbers: scientific notation, where the numbers are represented as multiplied by positive or negative powers of 10. This eliminates dealing with strings of digits.

Earlier this year I ran into a conversion factor used in industrial mixer design: 1.524 x 10 to the 13th power. That's a BIG number, but scientific calculators and computers are programmed to handle such numbers in scientific notation.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 13, 2012 | 9:37 a.m.

Ellis: What an amazing coincidence!

I picked natural blackberries a couple of weeks ago and I counted 1.524 x 10 to the 13th power chigger bites on my legs, arms, midriff, and nether-nether land.

Ain't math amazing? Ain't Benedryl amazing?

(Report Comment)
Ann Edwards July 13, 2012 | 11:15 a.m.

Should we say three dollars and five four cents?

(Report Comment)

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