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Can someone confirm or deny or improve my understanding of the traditional way of using the word "penny" in Britain?

Let's say "traditional" means, at the very least, before decimalization (or should I say "decimalisation"?).

My tentative understanding is:

  • The plural of penny when referring to a quantity of money is "pence", and
  • The plural when talking about a number of coins might have been "pennies".

Thus if you had a coin worth five times as much as a penny then you had five pence but you didn't have five pennies, but if you had the same amount of money in the form of five coins, then maybe you had five pennies.

Certainly in the U.S.A. if you have five coins each worth one cent you have five pennies, and if you have the same amount in the form of one coin you have five cents, but only if it were an unserious informal rhetorical device emphasizing the meagerness of the quantity might it be called "five pennies". (The word "penny" referring to the one-cent coin is unofficial but universal and not at all informal.)

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    There was a coin worth three pennies and it was called a 'thruppence' (three pence) or a 'thruppeny bit' or a 'threepenny bit'. So one could have three pennies, a thruppeny bit, a thruppence, or even three thruppences (worth nine pence).
    – Nigel J
    Mar 2, 2018 at 4:46
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    Yes, a penny is a round lump of metal, while "pence" is an abstract quantity. Mar 2, 2018 at 13:19
  • @MaxWilliams : My impression has been that even when it's an abstract quantity it's still a penny if there's only one. Is that right? Mar 2, 2018 at 16:39
  • @MichaelHardy Unless it's two ha'pennies?
    – shoover
    Mar 2, 2018 at 17:09
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    @MichaelHardy not usually - a price of 1p would be pronounced "1 pence", rather than "1 penny" usually. Mar 5, 2018 at 14:36

1 Answer 1

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Before decimalisation a shop assistant might say "That'll be one shilling and fourpence please" but the customer might say, "I've only got it in pennies, will that be all right?" And go on to hand over sixteen copper coins (there being 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound).

This demonstrates the difference between prices, which are conceptual, and coins, which are physical. Prices (or parts of prices) less than 1 shilling were expressed as 'pence' and penny coins were referred to as 'pennies'.

However in normal use the units of currency were often omitted when both shillings and pence were involved so the shop assistant above would say "That'll be one and four, please" and there would be no confusion. This only applied to prices or parts of prices less than a pound so you would hear:

"One pound four and six" (one pound, four shillings and sixpence written as £1/4/6 or £1 4s 6d in the old notation)

"Two pound ten" (two pounds and ten shillings written as £2/10/- or £2 10s)

or

"One pound and sevenpence" (one pound, no shillings and seven pence written as £1/0/7 or £1 0s 7d)

It was quite common to hear shillings expressed for amounts greater than a pound when number of shillings was not 10 and there were no pence so you would hear

"One pound 16 shillings" (One pound, sixteen shillings and no pence written as £1/16/- or £1 16s)

Apart from the fractional coins half penny (ha'penny) and quarter penny (farthing) there was a three penny coin (threepence, thruppence or threpenny bit), a six penny coin (sixpence or tanner), a shilling (shilling or bob), a two shilling coin (florin or two bob), a two shilling and sixpenny coin (half crown) and a ten shilling note. Archaically there was also a 5 shilling piece (crown), pound coin (sovreign) and ten shilling coin (half sovreign), although the last really have nothing to do with the post decimal pound and 50 pence piece.

Following decimalisation and the advertising to explain it people began to talk about pence as 'p' in contrast to 'd' which no one ever said before decimalisation. We also started to hear people talking about a 'one pence coin' instead of a penny. Unfortunately we still hear this regularly.

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  • You might want to mention what year "decimalisation" happened (1971), because I think many people aren't going to know when it happened. (As an American, I had to look it up.)
    – Laurel
    Mar 2, 2018 at 17:02
  • @Laurel Sorry about that, that was definitely an oversght.
    – BoldBen
    Mar 2, 2018 at 20:27
  • I'm also an American, but I knew it was 1971. Mar 3, 2018 at 2:53

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