Grammar Moses: On numbers and 'over' overkill

  • Piles of official-looking sweepstakes and other mailings are spread on a table at the North Carolina attorney general's office June 11, 2012, in Raleigh. "Over 3,499 citizens have fallen victim to elder fraud in Illinois since 2021," according to a study from the U.K. that is probably trying to puff up its results.

    Piles of official-looking sweepstakes and other mailings are spread on a table at the North Carolina attorney general's office June 11, 2012, in Raleigh. "Over 3,499 citizens have fallen victim to elder fraud in Illinois since 2021," according to a study from the U.K. that is probably trying to puff up its results. AP File Photo

 
 
Updated 6/11/2022 5:10 PM

On Facebook, where good grammar goes to die, I found the following solicitation to rock memorabilia collectors: "With over 817+ backstage passes from epic concert tours of the past ..."

That same day I received news of a study from someone in the U.K. that carried the subject line: "Over 3,499 citizens have fallen victim to elder fraud in Illinois since 2021."

 

If you know me, you've probably already guessed what I'm about to say. If that's the case, then I'm satisfied I'm not just screaming into the ether.

Can you envision what "over 817" is? How about "over 817+"?

Those were rhetorical questions, friends.

Are we led to believe there are 819 or 902½ (assuming Ozzy Osbourne bit one in half) or perhaps in the neighborhood of 4,000?

Who is to say? When people who market things use very precise numbers and then say it's over that number, they're clearly trying to puff up the product. My guess is, there are exactly 817 backstage passes in the collection up for sale. If the person can claim a larger number, rest assured that person will use the larger number.

"Over 3,499 citizens" is similarly goofy. One might assume that because elder fraud is an ongoing issue, there would be additional victims immediately after the study was published.

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What's wrong with using "at least" to hedge your bets? I distinctly remember the day in Illinois when nobody died of COVID-19. It seemed like it never would happen, and then it did.

"At least" at least tells you there is X number of something, but there could be more. Of course, the more specific you can be, the better.

Another thing about that elder fraud release is it reinforces the importance of context when looking at numbers.

It lists the 10 states with the most elder fraud cases, in descending order: California, Florida, Texas, New York, Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois and Arizona.

California must be a terrible place for seniors, right? Say what you will about California, but this ranking doesn't prove it. Why? Because California is the most populous state, followed by Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Seven of the 10 most-populous states also have the largest numbers of elder fraud cases. The Top 4 are the Top 4, albeit shuffled.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics" is apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain, but it's oh-so true. It's as important to think critically about numbers as it is language. If I'm being honest, it's more important.

I seem to have gotten completely off the rails for a grammar column, so let's get back on track.

Anytime atall?

I was just emailing with Kristine Wilson, our assistant corporate secretary. After I shook loose a few juicy corporate secrets, I thanked her. She responded: "Anytime."

And then she wrote back to ask whether "anytime" is one word or two.

It's always fine to use it as two words. The only time you smoosh the words together is when it's an adverb.

In "Call me anytime," the word describes when/how you should call me. So it's modifying a verb.

If you were to introduce a preposition -- "Call me at any time" -- it should be two words.

If you were to ask me if I had any time to jump on a Zoom call with you today, it would be two words.

Kristine, if you were to write "Call me anytime" too often, however, I might get the wrong idea and call HR.

Perhaps John and Paul wrote it best in this chorus from a song off the "A Hard Day's Night" album:

"Any time at all, any time at all

Any time at all, all you gotta do is call

And I'll be there."

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at grammarmosesthebook.com. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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