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September 26th, 2007

And in numbers / like me or like I? / behead

by Barbara Wallraff

Jean Huffey, of Waterville, Iowa, writes: “As a retired teacher, I am bothered by the use of ‘and’ in numbers — ‘We will now sing hymn number three hundred and twenty-three.’ I taught that ‘and’ was used in numbers to mean a decimal point, as in money, or with a fraction. ‘The cost is five dollars and thirty-two cents.’”

Dear Jean: I ask myself about those “and”s whenever I write a sizable check or say the current year aloud. Should I write “Five hundred five dollars” or “Five hundred and five”? Say “two thousand seven” or “two thousand and seven”? The rules you taught are right — but they’re not the whole story, as the movie and book titles “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” and “The Thousand and One Nights” suggest.

When there is a decimal point that’s going to be represented by “and,” it’s awkward and potentially confusing to throw in another “and” — for instance, “Five hundred and five and 32/100 dollars.” But without a decimal point, the use of “and” becomes a matter of personal preference. It’s optional, but not wrong. Hence my eternal indecision when I write checks. At least with “2007” there’s a third, hard-to-find-fault-with way: Pronounce it “twenty-oh-seven” and the problem is solved.

Jerry Hodge, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: “I would be forever grateful if you would discuss which is correct: ‘me’ or ‘I (am)’ in ‘a grown woman like me,’ a phrase that you used in a recent column.”

Dear Jerry: I doubt you can ever go wrong using “me” after “like.” The same, by the way, applies to the other objective pronouns “him,” “her,” “us” and “them.” That’s because in traditional usage, “like” is a preposition. Other examples of prepositions are “for” in “There’s a name for us” and “from” in “Take it from me.” You’d never think of saying “There’s a name for we” or “Take it from I,” I’m sure. Therefore, say “Write like me” or “a grown woman like me.”

Admittedly, people say things like “Write like I do,” but it makes traditionalists wince for the reason just stated. If you want to add a verb, like “do” (or “am”), you’re supposed to precede it with something besides “like.” Use “as” or “such as” if it pleases you to sound starchily correct: “Write as I do,” “a grown woman such as I am.” A correct, unstarchy alternative to “Write as I do” is “Write the way I do.” The unstarchy alternative to “such as I am” is “like me.”

Frank S. Robinson, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “Why do we say ‘behead’? Shouldn’t it be ‘dehead’?”

Dear Frank: This is one of those weird little artifacts we’ve inherited from Middle English. “Be-” as a prefix having to do with removing was apparently common until about 500 years ago. But the version of “be-” that has to do with being around or all over something — as in “bedevil” and “bespeckle” — eventually won out. The only other current word I know of that contains the same kind of “be-” as “behead’ is “bereave,” “reave” being an old word for “rob, deprive of,” and “bereave” meaning “be deprived of.”

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

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