I began to read the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and several times already, I came across numbers the form of which surprise me...

First, in A Study in Scarlet, Chapter IV:

"Give me food," the other said, hoarsely. "I have had no time for bite or sup for eight-and-forty hours." He flung himself upon the cold meat and bread which were still lying upon the table from his host's supper, and devoured it voraciously. "Does Lucy bear up well?" he asked, when he had satisfied his hunger.

Then, in The Sign of Four, first in chapter II:

If she were seventeen at the time of her father's disappearance she must be seven-and-twenty now, — a sweet age, when youth has lost its self-consciousness and become a little sobered by experience.

Then in chapter VII:

The scent will lie upon the road in spite of their eight-and-twenty hours' start.

These numbers may also be found in some short stories, such as The Red-Headed League and The Five Orange Pips (and probably others, but I might come across spoilers if I search further...). Additionally, I also found "standard" numbers, for instance when giving time:

It was twenty-five minutes to twelve, and of course it was clear enough what was in the wind. (A Scandal in Bohemia)

... and even when talking about age (even though my first quote of The Sign of Four uses the other form) :

All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible. (The Red-Headed League)

While I understand that these respectively mean 48, 27 and 28, I am very curious two know more about this formulation, for instance: what is specific to the time? To some writers? Is it still used? Were there rules as to when it should and shouldn't be used? Or does it depend on who's speaking, and on the context of the discussion?


3 Answers 3


The Slate podcast Lexicon Valley did an excellent review of this recently. I expect most regulars here would appreciate Lexicon Valley, BTW.


To be concise, old usage. We wouldn't use those nowadays, neither in formal or informal English.


I've just listened to the endless talk of Lexikon Valley about the curiosity of numbers. What they say is that in the Old English time the number 23 was read three and twenty, later in Middle English the order was reversed and the number was read twenty and three, and still later "and" was dropped and the number became twenty-three.

In my view they don't come to the point. Here we have one of the not so rare right-left phenomena in language. Arabic writes from right to left and in Arabic the tens come first and then the ones, so they would write 32 (from right to left) and read twenty (and) three, which is absolutely logical. Europe took over the numbers from the Arabs, we still call them Arabic numbers and don't use the clumsy Roman numbers any more, because the Arabic decimal system was far better suited to calculating.

We took over the numbers, adapted them to the left-right direction in writing, but curiously when reading Germans and the people of the Old English time read the numbers in the Arabic way from right to left. Obviously the writing was running left to right and the reading was right to left. In England this curiosity was gradually abolished, but in Germany they read numbers still in the Arabic way. I have observed that some children and adults have found a way to avoid this nuisance. They write numbers such as 23 from right to left, then speaking and writing are coordinated.

But even in England they were not consistent enough. The numbers thirteen to nineteen are still read in the wrong way. Old habits die hard.

  • Speakers of Old English were unlikely to read numbers the Arabic way, as they did not use Arabic numerals.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 2, 2015 at 21:20
  • Any other theories for the right-left direction when reading numbers?
    – rogermue
    Jan 2, 2015 at 22:03
  • What right-left direction? They weren't using a place-based decimal numerical system. Most of them weren't using a writing system at all.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 2, 2015 at 22:13

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.