Posted by: episystechpubs | June 19, 2012

Editor’s Corner: Cardinals, Collectives, and Composites

Today’s tidbits are from an article on numerical terms on

Note to Symitar/Episys readers: According to most style guides, Mr. Nichol uses the em dash incorrectly. If you follow The Chicago Manual of Style, there should not be any space on either side of the dash.


(From “10 Types of Numerical Terms,” by Mark Nichol)

How many categories of numerals are there, and what are their functions? No, you haven’t stumbled onto by mistake; this post helps sort out the ways you can refer to numbers and under which circumstances, with nary a digit or operational sign in sight. Ready? One, two, three . . .

Cardinal Numbers

Cardinal numbers — one, two, three, or the numeric equivalents, and so on — represent simple quantity (though, as shown in the previous paragraph, they can also be employed in a countdown — or, in that case, a countup). The names of English numerals are all derived from Old English, as are the suffixes -teen, which derives from a form of ten and means “ten more than,” and -ty, which means “ten.” Hundred and thousand are also derived from old English, but million and other terms for orders of magnitude come from Latin by way of French.

Collective Numerals

Collective numerals represent sets. There are various subcategories — kinship terms such as twin and triplet, and musical terms like duo and trio – and, well, singletons, like that word, pair, dozen, and so on. Language origin varies among these assorted words.

Composite Numbers

Composite numbers — unary, binary, ternary, and so on — represent composition (what something is composed of). Binary is the only one of these Latin-derived terms commonly used, though quaternary was applied to a geological age.

Distributive Numerals

Distributive numerals represent alternating patterns. In some languages (like Latin, which has singuli and bini, for example, to mean “one by one” or “two by two” respectively), these numerals are represented by a single term, are usually described in English in phrases such as “each day,” “every other week,” and “every third month.” However, English also has one-word examples such as centennial and its multiplied variants, descended from Latin terms.

Multiplicative Numbers

Multiplicative numbers — once, twice, thrice — represent repetition. The ancestors of these words are variations on the Old English words for one, two, and three. Among the categories listed in this post, the multiplicative group is the only one that does not represent any value higher than three. (The reason for this lack is unknown, though perhaps it’s because it’s rarely necessary to describe an attempt or action beyond several previous efforts.)

Kara Church | Senior Technical Editor

Symitar, A Jack Henry Company

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123

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