by Annie Wei-Yu Kan
If nouns are food, what are numbers?
Numbers are also food. They’re food that holds food. They’re edible dishes.
It’s true that numbers aren’t exactly the same as nouns, but they’re more like nouns than like anything else. Try this:
There are bananas.
There are three green bananas.
There are three of them.
There are three.
There are green of them.
There are green.
Yuck. Well, obviously green – or any other adjective – doesn’t behave like a noun. But three does. Some numbers behave even more like nouns:
There are a thousand of them.
A thousand? There are tens of thousands of them!
Do you see? They have indefinite articles (a thousand) and can be pluralized, and they can be the sole complement of a preposition: of thousands.
You don’t always need a preposition to join them: three bananas, not three of bananas. But this is a matter of economy and matches some things we do with nouns: banana bread, corn flour, a█████e ex-husband.
Some are even more like nouns:
There are a couple of rotten bananas on your counter.
A couple? There are a dozen of them.
All of these numbers are like food that holds other food. They’re like nouns, but they’re not the main event. They’re always presenting something else. They’re like a dozen hot dog buns holding a dozen hot dogs. Or they’re like rice paper wraps holding individual candies.
Many indefinite quantifiers are similar: a bunch, a lot, a large number, tons. They’re obviously nouns, and no one doubts it. But people get confused by this. They’re usually one noun holding a large amount of stuff. They are like those big deep-fried shells that hold salads at certain restaurants, or like the bread bowls that hold dip or chili. Are you eating the salad or the shell? The chili or the bowl?
Newspapers get this wrong all the time. A little learning is a dangerous thing. They’ve noticed that the collectives, which is another way of saying the indefinite quantifiers, are single nouns, and that they are the head nouns in the phrase, and so they conclude that the verb must be singular. You get things like this:
A handful of people believes this.
A large percentage of them is concerned about this.
Congratulations. You have just eaten the bread bowl before the chili. The chili is now spilling all over your table and onto your lap. I hope you’re happy. And no, Dirk, I will not eat that chili off your lap, since I know you’re going to ask.
Compare and contrast:
A large number of ex-husbands are vile.
A large number are vile.
A large number is vile.
Obviously the last one just means that you hate numbers such as 1,256,437. It makes no comment on what the number might be counting. Likewise,
A large number of ex-husbands is vile
is vile. You can see the difference in meaning also between these two:
A significant portion of men named Dirk are unpleasant.
A significant portion of men named Dirk is unpleasant.
In the latter, it seems to say that, for instance, 60% of Dirk is unpleasant. This is not true: 100% of Dirk is unpleasant. But there may be a pleasant Dirk somewhere else.
You would not say
A lot of people thinks so.
So don’t eat the deep-fried shell or the bread bowl first. Eat the contents first.
On the other hand, there are cases where you really do eat the container first. You bite through the bread on a sandwich, for instance. And sometimes you want to focus on the collective:
A bunch of bananas is hanging in the kitchen.
A bunch of people is coming down the street.
Change is to are and you see it means something a bit different.
So when you see a quantifier, ask yourself: do you want to eat it first? Or should you really deal with what’s inside it sooner?
by Dirk E. Oldman
As an acquaintance of mine once said, apropos of the cause of his divorce – he was an army doctor and took a fancy to a nurse – “Don’t ████ the help.”
Who are the help? Numbers.
Sometimes numbers are wingmen or wing girls, too.
But one thing they are not is sex toys or clothing.
You shouldn’t ████ the help (though you can ████ the wingmen), but you also shouldn’t mistake them for lubricants, dildos, or any of the many latex, leather, and metal things that enhance prowess and that, in the world of words, we call adjectives.
By “the help,” in case it’s not clear, I don’t mean your kitchen staff. I’m not talking about the old South here. I mean imagine you’re in a high-end club and there are people you want to meet and get to know, and there are also people who are there to take your coat and serve you drinks. Maybe in another club you’ll meet one of those coat-takers off-duty and they’ll be open game. But in this club they’re not in the game. They’re just there to help. No matter how well dressed they are, no matter how cute they look in their bowties or miniskirts.
Take a phrase such as this:
six red-hot, half-naked vixens
This is like being in a room where you have, yes, six red-hot half-naked vixens, each one dressed in one piece of spandex and some aromatic oils, and over by the side there’s a person wearing a tuxedo holding the clothes – or equipment, or drinks – of said vixens. The vixens are the noun vixens, the spandex is the compound adjective half-naked, the body oils are the compound adjective red-hot, and the servant over by the side is the six.
The spandex and body oils are both close to the skin of the vixens. You could say they’re equally close. You could make it half-naked, red-hot vixens: the order doesn’t really matter.
But that person in the tuxedo, that’s another person. That’s not something the vixens are wearing. Why does this matter? It’s like this: when you have a bunch of adjectives in a row, you put commas in between them if they’re equal and could be swapped around – if they’re all as close to the skin of the noun:
pert, firm, round boobings
round, pert, firm boobings
firm, round, pert boobings
If they’re in order of closeness to the skin, if you can’t swap the order, you don’t use commas:
long leather whip
You can’t really say leather long whip. We have ideas about what qualities are more essential. Size, by the way, is considered less essential than most other things (I already told you, it’s the motion):
big red latex condom
No one says red big latex condom. Maybe the people who work at Starbucks do. They have a weird adjective order because they order them according to their process. Anyone who has screwed a Starbucks employee, please comment.
If it seems like the ones that have an order should have commas and the ones that don’t shouldn’t, well, I can’t argue with you: it could make as much sense. We just don’t do it that way. Just like we don’t mean “Argue with me about food” when we say Let’s hit the sheets, baby. Unless we’re deranged.
Where am I going with this? Well, you remember the help? They’re always less close to the skin. They have their own skin. So they’re always farthest away. And they don’t get commas.
two pert, firm, round boobings
Don’t put a comma between a number and an adjective:
two, pert, firm, round, boobings
Oh yes, and don’t put a comma before the noun. For ████’s sake. That’s a person, not another piece of clothing.
So remember: You can’t wear the coat-check girl or the cocktail waiter. You’ll get thrown out if you try.
Sometimes the help is there are the door guarding the entrance, or taking your calls:
Are there six red-hot, half-naked vixens in there?
Yes, there are six in there. You can’t see them now.
The number is still standing for what it’s serving, so it takes the plural. But you only get to see the number: there are six.
Some quantity words are not so much numbers as nouns unto themselves, which means they’re also sort of available, like wingmen and wing girls. They’re supposed to help, but they might get some action:
A pair of Chippendale dancers are coming.
A pair of legs is coming.
In the second one, it’s the wingman who got the action: a pair is rather than are. You can see more examples of this kind of thing in Annie’s food orgy above. For all the food words, swap in something that bores you less.
Sometimes you get more than one wingman:
There are a half dozen of them.
In that one, a half modifies dozen, and together they give the number to them.
One more thing. Sometimes what looks like one number is really more than one. Here’s a number, a servant serving the noun:
a hundred food-obsessed harridans
In this one, the number has its own servant, an underbutler:
two hundred food-obsessed harridans
If you can have a hundred you can have two hundred, just like if you have a vibrator you can have two vibrators. In newspapers they hyphenate things like this – one-million sex tapes – just because they have narrow columns that tend to break numbers up and make it harder to read them. But two quantifies hundred and together they quantify Annies. I mean food-obsessed harridans.
Here’s a little exercise for you. Punctuate the following:
Two dozen sweet lively party girls are eating chili off my lap
Remember, only put the comma where the words on either side are equally close to the skin. It goes without saying that you can’t make it
Lively, party, sweet, two-dozen girls are eating chili off my lap.
although I would probably lose control of my syntax in that situation. No, it needs just one comma, between sweet and lively:
Two dozen sweet, lively party girls are eating chili off my lap.
Today’s lesson, then: don’t mistake the help for clothing, be careful about ████ing the wingman or wing girl, and don’t ████ the help.