edit: sorry if this is a duplicate - I tried searching but didn't find anything!

Was reading Do Fathers Matter? by Paul Raeburn and came across this sentence:

They tell us that among the australopithecines — the earliest members of the human family, who lived 4 million to 1 million years ago — mates were involved enough for males to have provided food and care for infants and protection from predators.

What really stumped me here was this part: "who lived 4 million to 1 million years ago." I swear I must have re-read this sentence ten times to make sure it wasn't myself that was getting this mixed up but shouldn't it be 1 to 4 million years ago (or 1 million to 4 million years ago, whatever).

Should it not be the smaller number first and then the larger number?

This seems like its - mistakenly - overcompensating for the whole BCE business....or I could be totally wrong.

  • 1
    This is nothing about the English language. From 4 AD to 6 AD but From 6 BCE to 4 BCE.
    – Kris
    Jun 23, 2014 at 13:51
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    This question is not about the English language.
    – Kris
    Jun 23, 2014 at 13:51
  • 2
    It sure looks like it is to me, @Kris. It's about how you represent certain numeric data in the English language.
    – Tim S.
    Jun 23, 2014 at 15:38
  • 3
    A slightly more verbose and probably slightly less surprising way to put it would be "who lived from 4 million years ago until 1 million years ago". Hopefully that makes it more clear why the writer orders dates chronologically in preference to ordering numbers by size. It wouldn't make sense to say that they lived "from 1 million years ago until 4 million years ago": "from ... until" implies forwards in time. Jun 23, 2014 at 18:30
  • @Tim as far as the English language is concerned, "4 to 1 million" and "1 to 4 million" are equally grammatical and represent the exact same numeric data. There is no "should" here. There ain't a rule for everything. (In fact, with language, there are no rules for most things. There's just a couple of constraints and the rest is completely up to you. That's the whole point of language, that's what it was invented for and that's why it works.) So I don't get the brouhaha. The passage is perfectly clear to every reader. At the same time, every writer is free to rewrite it.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 2, 2014 at 17:42

5 Answers 5


While it does seem awkward, I think the difference here is that it is expressing dates. If you think about it in terms of a more recent time range, like "John was out of town from Monday to Wednesday," you start with the furthest day and go to the nearest day. You wouldn't say "from Wednesday to Monday," because it would actually be saying something else. The same applies to months and years. You say "from 1982 to 1996" or "from March to June."

So, I think it is correct, even if it seems odd, to start with the furthest date and go to the nearest date.

ETA. And, along those lines, when you talk about BC, you start counting from 1 to express the year closest to the birth of Christ and then the larger the number gets, the further from the birth of Christ: the numbers get larger as you go further back in time. So you would say 250 BC to 150 BC. If this was being express as a date range in BC, which I suppose it could be, it would be 4 million BC to 1 million BC.

  • 2
    Doesn't "ago" somehow modify this though? We would say "five to ten minutes ago" not "ten to five minuets ago," right?
    – Mou某
    Jun 23, 2014 at 7:13
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    @user3306356 - I would say from ten to five minutes ago, to describe a time span. I would also say five to ten minutes ago, but to describe a time point without being precise. Jun 23, 2014 at 10:10
  • Being mathy, I say "from -250 to -150". Here, the biggest number is the most recent year. Jun 23, 2014 at 10:12
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    @Nicholas: perhaps a more obvious example that precisely matches your 5/10 minutes: one would say, "from 10 years ago until 2 days ago" to describe a duration. But one would also say "anything from 2 days ago to 10 years ago" to describe an unknown time in the past. The phrase in the question arguably is disambiguated by the order of the numbers, since otherwise it's only clear from our general knowledge of paleontology that australopithecines didn't live briefly, an unknown amount of time ago :-) Jun 23, 2014 at 18:25

In the case of positive numbers, a lower magnitude reflects a lower value. The exact opposite applies in the case of negative numbers. 4 Million Years ago was BC. 1 Million years ago was also BC. Since the date range is in BC, it is treated the way you would treat negative numbers. I hope that clarifies the question. Example :

The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC to 146 BC

Source : Wikipedia

  • This has nothing to do with the fact that the years in question are BC. It's the fact that he's talking about a time range. The period in question began 4 million years ago and ended 1 million years ago, so the phrasing used makes perfect sense.
    – Ryan M
    Jun 23, 2014 at 16:58

Because you're talking about time in the past. 4 MYA (million years ago) is further away than 1 MYA, thus the phrasing presented.


In a sentence dealing with dates, you put the earlier time first. Since he's talking about 4 million years ago and 1 million years ago, the earlier time would be 4 million years ago. Therefore that much of the quote is correct: "4 million to 1 million years ago". It's the same as if you were to say, "4,000,000 B.C. to 1,000,000 B.C."

However that only applies if he's referring to an earlier date and a latter date. In this case, he could also be referring to a smaller number or a larger number. If that's the case, "1 million to 4 million years ago" is correct. In this case, the comparison could be between either dates or raw numbers, so either one would be fine.


Your instinct is correct in that number ranges usually go from smaller to larger. There are some attempts to justify why this example doesn't fit that form, but in the end, this isn't a grammatical rule, but a common element of style. English allows for "1-3" just as much as "between 5 and 3pm," but cases where the span doesn't increase from the former to the latter are likely to confuse.

If I had been editor for that book, I would probably have flipped it to "1-4 million."

  • How long is the period "between 5 and 3pm"?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 2, 2014 at 17:35
  • Thus the "likely to confuse." It's a common enough construction, though.
    – wordsmythe
    Jul 2, 2014 at 17:41

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