<< back to the archive list

March 21st, 2007

.99 cents / more on pairs / ideals and ideas

by Barbara Wallraff

Marty LeGere, of Magna, Utah, writes: “A mathematical error that could be a grammatical error as well has always irritated me. Grocery stores often have signs advertising items on sale for .99 cents. Really? Do you think I could buy 10 of those items for less than a dime? I used to point this out to store employees and even managers, but I would usually just get blank looks. Or worse, I would get some lame retort like ‘It costs 99 cents, sir,’ along with a can’t-you-read? look.”

Dear Marty: From my point of view, “.99 cents” is either a mistake in punctuation or a redundancy. Obviously, the 99 should not have a period in front of it -- so the punctuation is wrong. Why would someone write that? Probably because $0.99 means 99 cents, so the sign maker decided to be extra-clear by using the period together with a cents sign or the word “cents” -- and that’s a redundancy.

I’ve done my share of offering unsolicited advice to store employees and managers, and I’ve all but given up. I don’t get into conversations anymore about signs or labels unless they truly confuse me. For instance, does “99 percent X-free” mean that the producer has taken out 99 percent of the X that was originally there, or does it mean that the product is 1 percent X? As far as I can tell, when “X” is caffeine, it means that 99 percent of the caffeine has been taken out, but when “X” is fat, it means that 1 percent of the whole product is fat. What’s next? I expect .99 percent X-free food, which of course will be 99.1 percent solid X.

Lynne Waite, of Newberry, Mich., writes: “You have often said that dictionaries state usage and not correctness of English. So to use a dictionary definition to show the correct meaning of ‘pair,’ as you recently did, is invalid. Please correct your oversight.”

Dear Lynne: Thanks for holding me to my own standards. But I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I think dictionaries are useless. The question you’re referring to was about whether “pair” has a particular meaning that I’d never heard of. Dictionaries give traditional, unquestionably correct meanings of words and also meanings that -- whether or not usage authorities like them -- have become relatively common. So when a meaning is not in dictionaries, that’s evidence that the word should not be used that way, or at least that the usage isn’t traditional or standard.

Judy Shaw, of Brandon, Fla., writes: “My husband regularly uses the word ‘ideal’ when expressing his brainstorms. I tell him that he should use the word ‘idea,’ as in ‘I have an idea.’ Instead, he says ‘I have an ideal.’ Is it OK to substitute the word ‘ideal’ for ‘idea’?”

Dear Judy: Has your husband been reading Plato? If so, tell him he's got it backwards: This ancient Greek philosopher used the word "idea" to mean "a general or ideal form, type, model" ? not the other way around. If not, I can't imagine what his excuse might be. Either way, your husband ought to cut it out and say "idea" like the rest of us.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list