Tag Archives: Base 10

Grammithmatic Part 3

BLESSIs there really no such number as Eleventeen? Well, there isn’t, but bear with me for a minute.

I have been posting about how we math educators can play with language and make our slightly awkward number naming system a little more logical and a lot more transparent. Check out Part 1 to read about playing with number names to clarify our base-ten system. Check out Part 2 to read about how we can make place value and zero clearer. In Part 3, I am exploring how to make borrowing clearer to the new learner.

The number eleventeen was derived by some astute and logical child who figured that since 13, 14, 15, 16, et al. all end in TEEN, then so should 11, and 12 for that matter. Of course, the poor dear didn’t count on the linguistic mashup that is English. There is also every chance that some other child called 11 ‘Oneteen’ and 12 ‘Twoteen,’ bless her heart.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our number names made more sense? Well, what’s stopping us?

Read this list of numbers to yourself. Then tell yourself what comes next.

10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90

Did you follow Ninety with One Hundred? Of course you did.

Now, how about this string? Read it to yourself and say what comes next.

100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900

Did you say One Thousand? Or did you say Ten Hundred? Which one is right? What’s the difference?

Most would say that One Thousand is technically the correct response, but in common vernacular, Ten Hundred is acceptable too. We usually said Nineteen Hundred Ninety-Something a couple of decades ago, and we all knew what we meant.

My idea is to take this already common and, quite frankly, logical exception to naming a number, and apply it to clarifying the act of borrowing.

Look at this equation.


If we subtract these numbers in columns, without any deriving, manipulating, or expanding of the numbers (let’s go ‘old school’ for a moment), we immediately end up in a situation where we have to borrow. And how do we do that?


We can’t do 4-7, so we have to borrow 1 TEN from the Tens column, effectively breaking that decade unit into 10 ONEs. We add those to the 4 ONEs already in the Ones column. Now we have 14-7. But look at how we’ve notated that borrowing on paper. A new learner would look at that top number and lose it. That number now makes no sense. It was 234, now it’s 2214, which looks to me like Two Thousand, Two Hundred Fourteen.

But of course it isn’t actually. It’s 2 HUNDREDS + 2 TENS + 14 ONES.

So here’s my thinking. Let’s actually call it that. The original number was Two Hundred Thirty-four. Now it’s Two Hundred Twenty-fourteen.

TWENTYTWELVE.jpgYou know, as in Twenty-eight, Twenty-nine, Twenty-ten, Twenty-eleven, etc.

If we can say Ten Hundred, why can’t we say Twenty-fourteen?

Typically we abandon what the Minuend (the number we are subtracting from) is called (thereby losing the value) the moment we break it up to borrow. We hash it up, cross things out, write things in. It’s no longer an identifiable number. However, while we broke the rule about how many digits are allowed in a column, and put more than 9 ONEs into the Ones column, we can try to keep order and at least follow the rest of the rules by naming the new number logically.

Rather than jumping in to solve 14-7, I’ve read that it’s a good idea to do all the borrowing before any subtraction is actually done. So, let’s keep borrowing and move on to the Tens.

We can’t take 5 TENs from 2 TENs. We must borrow 1 HUNDRED, break it up into 10 TENs, add them to the 2 TENs already in the column, and get 12 TENs altogether.


Now, we’ve done all the borrowing we have to do, and the minuend is completely mangled. Any thoughts on what we could call this new number? What do we name 12 TENs sitting in the Tens column?


Seventy, Eighty, Ninety, Tenty, Eleventy, Twelvety!

Therefore, I propose the new number we are subtracting from is One Hundred Twelvety-Fourteen.

One Hundred minus One Hundred is Zero Hundreds (or No Hundred, if you read Part 2). Twelvety minus Fifty is Seventy. Fourteen minus Seven is Seven. So the ‘answer’ is Seventy Seven.GRAM3D

Without naming the new number and making the borrowing obvious, there is so much potential for confusion. Children don’t understand how the carried over numbers apply. They think that the number has suddenly increased in magnitude. They forget to cross things out…


But, do you see how, by naming borrowed numbers this way, we are following through with the properties of our number naming system, staying true to the Hundreds, Tens, and Ones structure of base-ten, using the name system to impose order and make what we did with the borrowing process obvious?


Would I exclusively name numbers this way. Absolutely not. That does no one any good. However, by renaming the minuend, we are playing with language. Kids love playing with language. By playing with the language, we are making our number system clearer, exposing rules that have been hidden due to linguistic laziness/pragmatism over time. A clearer sense of number in this gaming context makes the learning stick in a meaningful, more flexible and fluid way. And, when we learn any language, our goal is fluency. The language of math is no exception.




Grammithmatic Part 2

If you want to read Part 1 where I discuss the number words we have for the TEENS and TENS, click here.

SLOBSFor Part 2 of tackling number naming conventions, another issue that stands in the way of many students truly understanding the base 10 system is the role of the zero, and what we call it.

Zero is a quantity, a benchmark, and placeholder. All students learn what zero as a quantity. They connect 0 to the idea of having nothing very easily. They also catch on to the 0+n=n pretty fast; not just the idea of adding to ZERO but the formula itself, even at 8 years old. ZERO as nothing is easy.

As a benchmark, it’s iffy. It applies mostly to negative numbers which baffle teenagers sometimes. However, talks about rulers, scales, and centigrade thermometers can help students to at least see that we generally start counting from zero.

What is really tough is when it comes to place value, especially when borrowing and carrying in columnar adding, and regrouping when applying the distributive property. It’s overwhelming sometimes. And yet, without a ZERO, our number system is impossible. As such, it is imperative that students gain a strong understanding of how the ZERO works and what it means. Here’s a distracting link to Schoolhouse Rock you can show your class-but preview it first because you never know how people muck around with stuff.

So, how do we overcome some of this confusion?

Be aware the ZERO is there, and make sure students understand that it means something. When we have a number like 20, or 304, or even 2, the ZEROs go unmentioned, like they aren’t there; but they are, they have to be.

It’s not actually 20. It’s not even Two TENs. It’s Two TENs and ZERO ONEs.

It’s not 304. It’s Three HUNDRED and ZERO TENs and Four ONEs.

The simple act of explicitly bringing the ZERO to a student’s attention, and giving a name to the position of the ZERO makes place value much more obvious.infinite

Think of that ZERO as an empty box. Whenever we see a ZERO, there is a place we can put another number. We don’t think about it because we don’t say it (it takes too long to do such a thing practically, but for educational purposes…). If you think about it, even 2 has ZEROs. There are infinite ZEROs both before and after that 2, but for brevity and clarity’s sake we don’t mention them.

What’s important to understand is that empty boxes can be filled. You have experienced children who write 198, 199, 200, followed by 2001, 2002. This is because they have misunderstood that the ZEROs are placeholders for numbers that can be added to the HUNDREDs. They think that the ’00’ works like a plural S or some kind of suffix. It must be made clear that the first 0 after the HUNDRED is for any TENs that might come along, and the next ZERO is for any ONEs. What’s 202nice is the 0 looks like a cozy little container you can put stuff in.Again, labelling the ZEROs with their place value will support this understanding.

Here we have 200…Two HUNDRED and ZERO TENs and ZERO ONEs. Over here we have Two ONEs. I’m going to add those ONEs in the empty ONEs container  of 200 to make Two HUNDREDS and ZERO TENs and Two ONES.

I have Given ZERO a name. I know, ZERO is its name. So is nil, and cipher, and nought. But that’s not what I mean. If you think about 3, it can be THREE, it can be THIRteen, it can be THIRty, or THREE HUNDRED. And each name for 3 implies it’s location in the place value system (again, follow the link to Part 1 to see how to make this explicit). Well, I think we should do the same for ZERO.

So, we have the number 0 alone, and that is called ZERO.

What about for 10? First, we break 10 down and say it is One TEN and Zero ONEs. Then, when that is understood, or maybe in order to make sure it’s understood, we take things a step further, and name it One TEN None.

Did you see what I did there? To clarify, 21 is Two TENs ONE. Therefore, 10 is One TEN None. The TENS are no longer seen solely as large collections of ONES. By naming the empty ONEs column we make the students aware that that number is there, it has a purpose and a value even if its value is nothing.

If you keep this going, we have Twenty-NoneTwenty-One, Twenty-Two….
We have Fifty-None, Fifty-One, Fifty-Two….

Next, 300 becomes Three HUNDRED, Empty-None. Get it? Fifty=Five TENS, Thirty=Three TENS, Empty=No TENS! (I’ve also toyed with Nonety or Nunty, but that might get confused too easily with Ninety. I’m still experimenting.) The point is, by naming the ZEROs, we emphasize the value of each part of the number as well as the ZERO’s placeholder role. This should prevent numbers like 60024 when writing about how many kids go to our school

Let’s do 2045? Two THOUSAND, NoHUNDRED, Forty-Five. Or perhaps you prefer None HUNDRED?

This can go on, but once we’re in the thousands, the irregularities of naming just repeat themselves. We, as a culture, haven’t used large numbers enough for the language to evolve shortened, lazier forms of big number names. How would you say 3 000 000?

Three Million, NoHundred Empty-None Thousand, NoHundred Empty-None.

Finally, I’ll give you a challenge that one of my students gave me. How would you write the number Empty-Six in numerals?

Like this.


I’m pretty impressed that he understands that whole infinite ZERO thing, and I see this insight of his as proof that this idea of naming the ZEROs has some real legs. Let me know how it works for you if you try it, and tell me about any confusions or issues that popped up that I haven’t experienced yet.

%d bloggers like this: