6

I've always learned that the difference between 'number' and 'numeral' was that number is the idea and numeral is the representation. But after a discussion with @terdon in chat, I'm not so sure anymore. Different sources say different things.

Like, Merriam Webster defines numeral as:

a conventional symbol that represents a number

But lists 'number' as a synonym.

And in their number entry:

a word, symbol, letter, or combination of symbols representing a number (definition 4)

The top Google result says:

A numeral is a symbol or name that stands for a number. Examples: 3, 49 and twelve are all numerals. So the number is an idea, the numeral is how we write it.

So what is the difference between 'number' and 'numeral'?

11
  • 3
    253 is a number but not a numeral. Pi is a number but not a numeral. e is a number but not a numeral. The square root of two is a number but not a numeral. Your age is a number but not a numeral. Your postal code in some countries is a number, but it is never a numeral anywhere ever. Your weight is a number, but not a numeral. Do I need to go on?
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 13:34
  • 1
    How is '253' not a numeral? Aside from that, that basically looks like what I thought originally.
    – Mithical
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 13:38
  • 3
    It is a numeral according to the OED "A figure, symbol, or group of figures or symbols denoting a number." @Mithrandir Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 13:41
  • 1
    @terdon 4 is a numeral representing the number 4. IV are two numerals. representing the number 4. The number 4 is an abstract idea. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 14:26
  • 3
    253 is a number, "253" is a numeral. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 20:14

3 Answers 3

7

Merriam Webster's Thesaurus entry for "numeral" lists "number" and "numeral" as synonyms. This is due to the fourth definition for "number", which provides a definition for "number" that is synonymous with the definition for "numeral".

  1. a: a word, symbol, letter, or combination of symbols representing a number

For comparison, here is the same dictionary's definition for "numeral":

  1. a conventional symbol that represents a number

Where the need arises to distinguish between the mathematical value represented by a group of symbols and the symbols themselves, "number" is the preferred word to describe the abstracted mathematical value that is being represented, and "numeral" is the preferred word to describe the group of symbols representing the number. In other words, "numeral" is what you call the symbol or groups of symbols that represents a "number". This distinction isn't particularly useful in everyday correspondence because it's rare that the need arises to consider the characters that make up a number. As an example, 119 is a numeral, and the number it represents can be represented more elaborately or verbosely using various mathematical definitions, such as ((1 * 10^2) + (1 * 10) + 9).

3
  • 2
    The most common example I can think of in which the word numeral is useful is the phrase "Roman numerals" denoting a different way of symbolizing numbers.
    – Al Maki
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 15:26
  • @AlMaki While true, that's only because Roman numerals are the only foreign numerals with which the average English speaker is familiar. Our own numerals are so heavily ingrained in our daily way of thinking and communicating that we don't often have a use for discussing the forms of those symbols. The distinction is principally important in fields like mathematics and linguistics, which concern themselves with these things, or, as you note, when speaking of foreign sets of symbols, used to represent numbers, like Roman numerals.
    – R Mac
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 15:45
  • I wanted to add a classic reason for caring about the distinction. We know that 2+2=4, but is NOT true that "2"+"2" = "4", rather "2"+"2"="22". Likewise the Roman X = ten, they are identical in every way, just like I'm identical to myself, or the morning star is the evening star (= Venus): but letter "X" is not the same as triplet of letters "ten". Why do we care? To make Maths and logic consistent. Without a distinction between numeral (linguistic symbols) and number, we get paradoxes such as Russell's "The least number that cannot be described in less than twenty-three words" etc. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 11:34
2

The most probable way to differentiate number from numeral :- A numeral is a system of representing a number by the use of symbol(s) such as "I","V","C","M" in roman numeral system,for example "IV" is a numeral made up by using symbols "I" and "V" for representing number 4(four). In hindu-arabic numeral system symbols "0","1","2",...........,"9" (in modern language what we call as digits) are used in a combination to form numerals such as "12","21","92" which represents numbers twelve(12),twenty one(21) and ninety two(92) respectively. Thus numerals i.e numeral systems are the way of representing numbers in different civilizations around the world. The most prevelant numeral system today in the world is the hindu-arabic system.

0

There is no difference in meaning, in my opinion. It is just the choice of which word you use when you speak to someone. To me, numeral sounds like it can be used as an adjective or noun(in other forms of the word), while number cannot be used as an adjective, but a verb or noun(in other forms of the word).

("Numeral" ends with "ral" therefore it sounds better in numerical, unlike "number". And "number" ends with "ber", which sounds better when in its verb form, "numbering" or "numbered". Do you notice that its prefixes are the same? You can check this "rule" in other similar English words.) Just some food for thought! I only came upon this question while doing looking at my math notes. Hope this helps you better understand the difference:)

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