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I've searched this site for questions containing both thirteen and thirty, fourteen and forty, etc. up until I found this question about seventy. Most of the comments seem to be about using "sevenee" to emphasize 70 and using "steventeen" (with emphasis) to indicate 17. However this doesn't work for other numbers like 30 which would turn into something like "thurry".

The top answer on that question is this:

When speaking, you can distinguish between them more easily by stressing a different syllable:

  • 17 = sev en TEEN
  • 70 = SEV en tee

Is this the common practice? It doesn't seem to remove any ambiguity if you don't already know of the practice, but since it is the top voted answer I guess it might be the way to go.

In another, unrelated question I found this relevant remark in an answer:

Sometimes, it is helpful to read numbers digit by digit for clarity. For example, "fifteen" and "fifty" sound alike, so in aviation, such numbers are spoken as "one-five" and "five-zero", respectively; 1500 is "one-five-hundred".

But doing that in informal conversation? You would sound weird, and you probably wouldn't be understood. You could say it redundantly "fifteen (that's one-five)".

Which makes more sense to me as a non-native speaker. I'm assuming that even with a perfect pronunciation (which I don't think I have), there are still going to be cases where background noise (mainly when communicating with someone not next to you) or audio quality will cause it to become unclear anyway, but I might be wrong in that.

What's the way to go about this, keeping in mind that:

  • I'll talk with a lot of non-native speakers who might not be used to some common practice; and
  • still wanting to be clear (and not sounding silly or condescending) to native speakers?

Should I use different approaches for different numbers, like "sevenee" for 70 and "thirty like three-oh" for 30? What about other numbers?

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    The last syllable in the *-teens already has secondary stress (to some even primary). It's just a matter of exaggerating that stress. The -ty, on the other hand, is always unstressed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 22 '17 at 1:41
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    "1500 is "one-five-hundred" The acceptable ways to voice this number are "one-five-zero-zero", "fifteen hundred", and "one thousand five hundred". One would not say "one-five-hundred" which would be ambiguous in meaning. Also, keep in mind that distinguishing between for example, 17 and 70 in your voicing with real clarity is only important when both numbers are plausible in context. Often your pronunciation can be ambiguous and still sufficient. – ohwilleke Jan 22 '17 at 1:42
  • It’s the ’N’ in teen that needs to be clearly communicated. If they still don’t get it after you’ve slowed and stressed the teen, try turning the trailing ’N’ into a “Nuh” – Jim Jan 22 '17 at 2:02
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    This is a lost cause. There is no way to legislate the way other people talk, and even if you find for yourself a foolproof formula for saying the numbers in an easily recognizable way, others won't, and you'll still be saying "Fifty?" and having them say, "No, fifteen!" – Robusto Jan 22 '17 at 4:00
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    It's simple: Just put lots more emphasis on the first syllable in the case of 30. If you say THIR..., where the ... is indistinguishable or even practically inaudible, 30 will be understood. Oppositely, if you want to be sure to communicate 13 and not 30, make sure you do not emphasize the first syllable a lot more than the second. The exact pronunciation of the second syllable has practically no importance, in terms of being understood. End of story. – Drew Jan 22 '17 at 6:11
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"Thirteen" has primary stress on its second syllable and secondary stress on its first syllable -- that is "th2irt1een", using a notation similar to that of The Sound Pattern of English. "Thirty" has primary stress on its first syllable, but no stress on its second syllable: "th1irty". And similarly, "f2ourt1een" and "f1orty".

The stress, or lack of stress, conditions some common phonetic changes in casual pronunciation. A "t" after a vowel, a glide, or "r" and before an unstressed vowel can change to a flap, sometimes written "D", so we can get "th1irDy" and "f1orDy", but because of the stress on the following vowel, this does not affect the "t" of "th2irt1een" and "f2ourt1een".

At a even more casual level, the flap "D" can be lost, giving "th1iry" and "f1ory".

The example "s1eventy" is similar, but has extra complications. The second "e" becomes a nasal vowel "e~" under the influence of the following "n", then the "n" may be lost before "t", giving "s1eve~ty". Now, the "t" is after the vowel "e~" and before the unstressed vowel "y", so it can be flapped, giving "s1eve~Dy", then (if things get this far), the "D" is changed to a nasal flap "N" because of the preceding nasal vowel, giving "s1eve~Ny". Like oral flap "D", at a more casual level of speech, the nasal flap can be lost, giving "s1eve~y".

For other numbers, well, it just depends. It's not terribly complicated, but there is no single simple rule that will tell you what pronunciations you will find in American English.

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    Note that you can use superscript numbers with <sup>1</sup> so you can write th<sup>2</sup>irt<sup>1</sup>een and get th²irt¹een. It's a little more work, but it makes the result easier to read. (It doesn't work in comments though) – Andrew Leach Jan 22 '17 at 10:10
  • I'm not familiar with this "th2rt1een" notation and the post sounds quite technical. If I understood correctly, it comes down to: stress the first part in x0 numbers (30-40-etc.) vs. the second part in 1x numbers (13-14-etc.); and pronouncing the "t" in 0x numbers as a "d" to differentiate, or drop the "t" sound altogether informally. It still sounds like something people would have to know beforehand, not foolproof like "twelve plus one" or "one three". I guess nothing like that is commonplace among natives then (unless talking over the phone or otherwise have a hard time hearing each other). – Luc Jan 22 '17 at 11:08
  • Well, a flap, which I write "D", is not the same as a "d", Do a web search on "flap pronunciation". Rachel has a good explanation here: youtube.com/watch?v=Y7FUneS1mBs . The phonetic changes I refer to are not things that have to be learned by American English speakers, or any speakers; if they are not to apply, that is what has to be learned. Flaps from t/d/n are not heard in British English because they they are deleted (as they may be in American casual speech). – Greg Lee Jan 22 '17 at 11:46
  • @AndrewLeach What works both in comments and in posts is the Unicode super- and subscript characters. For example: th²irt¹een. – MetaEd Feb 20 '17 at 15:37
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Foolproof way so everyone, non native and native speakers, should understand.

A: How much is that?
B: That's 14 dollars.
A: 40 or 14?
B: It's 11, 12, 13, four-TEEN

AND

A: How much is that?
B: That's 40 dollars.
A: Is that 14 or 40?
B: It's FOR-ty, the number before 41 (FORty ONE).

  • Interesting approach, using "forty-one minus one" or "thirteen plus one" as clarification. It'd sound weird up front so it's not really an answer to what I meant, but when prompted it seems like a foolproof way to clarify. Thanks! – Luc Jan 22 '17 at 10:59
  • Saying 13 +1 might not work, because the listener might still understand thirty plus one" But by saying: "*twelve, and stressing the second syllable in thirTEEN and fourTEEN" the listener should understand that you are talking about the teens- – Mari-Lou A Jan 22 '17 at 11:57
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In a formal/work environment I usually hear it spoken with the digits clarified as mentioned in the OP's own referenced answer,e.g.

There will be seventy, as in seven-zero, parts in the widget.

Alternatively, in a lighthearted or casual environment perhaps British Bingo number nicknames would help. From Wikipedia :

In the game of bingo in the United Kingdom, callers announcing the numbers have traditionally used some nicknames to refer to particular numbers if they are drawn. [...]

Quoting Loquax's Guide to Bingo

13 Unlucky for Some.
17 Dancing Queen.
30 Dirty Gertie.
70 Three score and ten.

In Ireland and Britain many of these Bingo nicknames are very well known and the whole list is fun to read.

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