humor, life

Fun with numbers

I discovered while walking to the car today that my grasp of the English language is, at times, tenuous at best.

i don't get it

I overheard a snippet of a conversation: “…by a twenty-year-old…” and I thought “huh, that kinda makes the number 20 an adjective.”

INITIATE LOGICAL INSANITY SPIRAL

But wait, 20 is describing how something is, not what something is (as in How old are you? 20).  Describing how is an adverb’s job (how did you do on that test?  I did well).  Describing what is an adjective’s job (What color is that?  Blue, old man!).  So what does that make 20 in this case?

Whenever I’m having trouble distinguishing adjectives from adverbs, I stick the color blue in the sentence to see if it makes sense.

How old are you?  I’m blue years old.

Ok so that doesn’t really work.  How about this:

How old are you?  I’m many years old.

The answer makes sense, even though it doesn’t answer the question.  So that makes many, and therefore any word you could logically stick in that position, an adjective, right?  Right.  Let’s do another example:

I have blue crayons.

I have many crayons.

I have 20 crayons.

They’re all adjectives!  Hurrah!  So why does the question How old lead to an adjective for an answer?

How old is really asking Please describe the number of years this person has been alive.  People are nouns, and adjectives describe nouns.  But wait!  That’s not really what we’re being asked to describe.  Look again:

Please describe the number of years…

How can years be described?  With numbers, yes, but with adjectives too, like difficult (adjective), blurry (adjective), and fucking (adverb) awesome (adjective).

But we’ve specifically been asked to describe the number of years.  The only way to answer that is with a number.  Answer: The number of years is twenty.  Wait a second, this makes twenty look like a noun!  Let’s use math to figure this out:

x = y

The number is twenty.

number = twenty

If number is a noun, twenty must be too.  So even though it sounds like twenty is describing the number, all it’s really doing is acting as an alternative for the concept of the number of years someone has been alive, which is a noun.

Mystery solved!

Note: I think about this kind of thing all the time, especially walking to or from my car, or while driving.  Anything that requires less than 80% of my attention automatically receives only 25% of my attention, while the other 75% works at figuring out whether numbers can be adjectives.  This is my life.

UPDATE: I just looked up twenty in the Oxford English Dictionary online.  Holy shit.  I love dictionaries, but holy shit.

this gentleman from the OED agrees... i win.

It sounds like they reach just about the same conclusion I reach, which is that twenty stands in the place of a noun, thereby allowing it to take on the properties of a noun.  Which of course means…

I WIN!!  TIME TO JUMP IN SOME PUDDLES!!  PET ALL THE CUTE DOGS!!  EVERYBODY JUMP IN THE POOL WITH YOUR CLOTHES ON!!  I WIN!!

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3 thoughts on “Fun with numbers

  1. thegrammaniac says:

    Very clever post! As much of a freak as I am about grammar, I don’t know that this has ever crossed my mind. Also, “I’m blue years old” made me giggle. 😀

    • I’m glad you liked it! English is such a great language. On that topic, if you’ve never read “The Professor and the Madman,” I highly recommend it. It’s about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and how one of the men who contributed hugely to it was criminally insane. Great read.

  2. I’m glad you liked it! English is such a great language. On that topic, if you’ve never read “The Professor and the Madman,” I highly recommend it. It’s about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and how one of the men who contributed hugely to it was criminally insane. Great read.

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