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April 25th, 2007

More on .99 cents / momently

by Barbara Wallraff


Judy Kaland, of Columbus, Wis., writes: “A comment on your recent column about ‘.99 cents.’ I’m a retired math teacher, and you don’t know the times I’ve embarrassed my husband and children when I bring the mistake to the attention of store employees. My husband read your column and said, ‘There’s someone else as crazy as you.’ All my students knew this pet peeve of mine from the first day of class. Thanks for trying to educate the public on this matter.”

Jerrold Grossman, of Rochester, Mich., writes: “I am happy that you discussed the rampant error of retailers’ posting prices such as ‘.99 cents’ when they mean ‘99 cents.’ Your answer, however, was inadequate. The dot in ‘.99’ is not a punctuation mark, as you say. It is a mathematical symbol. You say that this decimal point is ‘redundant.’ No, it is simply wrong. Please correct and clarify in a subsequent column. As a math teacher who insists that my students understand that math makes sense, I feel that you have done a disservice to education.”

Roy C. Wilcox, of Delmar, N.Y., writes: “What is the difference if it’s marked ‘.99 cents’ or ‘$0.99’? With all the problems in the world, wasting paper to print such nonsense is unbelievable. You people should get a life.”


Dear Judy, Jerrold and Roy: Roy, may I introduce you to Judy and Jerrold? Judy and Jerrold, would you please have a talk with Roy? Jerrold, I’m sorry I got your back up with my whimsy. Because this is Word Court, not Math Court, I thought I’d have a go at explaining what’s wrong with “.99 cents” in language terms. And in language terms, mispunctuation and redundancy can make something “simply wrong.” Although the answers to language questions are rarely as straightforward as the answers to mathematical ones, English makes some kind of sense too.




Nick Barkman, of Lawrence, Kan., writes: “Can you help resolve a dispute I’m having with a co-worker about ‘momently’? I say ‘momently’ should be used to indicate a brief period of time between a departure and a return (for example, ‘I’ll be back momently’). She feels ‘momently’ isn’t a word at all and that the longer ‘momentarily’ is the only way to indicate this idea. Your thoughts?”


Dear Nick: “Momently” is indeed a word, and it’s been one since the 1600s. But it has fallen into disuse. Webster’s New World Dictionary says it’s “now rare”; the New Oxford American calls it “archaic, poetic/literary.”

Inconveniently for both you and your co-worker, “momentarily” has its shortcomings too. Traditionalists -- including 59 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, at last count -- hold that it means “for a moment,” but not “in a moment,” as in “I’ll be back ...” What to do? If you want your language to be both up-to-date and impeccably correct (which seems to me an awfully high standard to set for casual speech), instead of saying “I’ll be back momently,” how about “I’ll be gone momentarily”? Or “I’ll be back in a moment”?




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

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