UK paperback

Three seven five

The price is right

I was “browsing” in a shop the other day, when my companion enquired as to the price of a piece of leather merchandise. The shop assistant told us the price, not by saying the actual number, but by uttering single digits: “Three seven five.” This is an increasingly common and delightfully transparent strategy of commercial Unspeak, whereby the hearer is discouraged from conceptualizing the figure as a real sum of money (“Oh em gee, three hundred and seventy-five pounds!?”). Instead one may merely relax into the mellifluous recitation of single integers, as though a savant somewhere is reciting the million-and-nth digits of pi tau; one may even imagine one’s own decimal point, placed anywhere in the series that makes it seem more agreeable; and, as my companion noted, if the reciter speaks slowly enough, it seems possible for the merchant to hope that you will have forgotten the first digit, and the total number of digits, by the time the speaker arrives at the last. ((On the other hand, I have noticed that car prices in TV ads tend to be announced along the lines of “Ten nine nine five”: perhaps for a series of five digits or longer, the worry is that the listener could be confused into thinking that the price is an order or two of magnitude greater than it is.)) I expect that soon some enterprising emporium will instruct its associates to communicate prices in binary?

What other rhetorical strategies of price obfuscation cause you to buy nice things, readers?

  1. 1  Stan  August 4, 2011, 6:16 pm 

    I’m very fond of shop signs (often day-glo stars or something similarly exciting) that suggest great savings, only for the reduction to be something along the lines of €4.99 to €4.95; multiple exclamation marks sometimes feature as an additional device of cheap persuasion.

    “Three seven five” has half the number of syllables that “three hundred and seventy-five” does, so laziness might play a part. Economy of expression comes more into play when we have to repeat things, and the shop assistant may be obliged to speak a lot of numbers every day.

  2. 2  Sean  August 5, 2011, 6:06 pm 

    The use of that verbal styling on TV and radio ads is probably driven by the need for brevity.

    When you’re trying to cram a sales message, wrapped in some kind of coherent narrative, into 30 seconds or less, it helps if you can save the odd half second.

  3. 3  redpesto  August 8, 2011, 8:25 pm 

    ‘Three seven five’ – £375

    ‘Three seventy-five’ – £3.75

    The difference between buying and browsing?

  4. 4  Neil  August 11, 2011, 12:42 pm 

    I’m curious to know why everyone keeps using the phrase ‘Flat Screen Television’ whenever anyone steals one (or simply owns one *despite being on benefits*), as though any other type of television is widely available these days.

  5. 5  Sean Anderson  August 12, 2011, 3:29 am 

    @Neil A curious phrase from the get-go, as most CRT televisions with large backs on them also had flat screens.

  6. 6  Sohail  August 13, 2011, 6:35 pm 

    You may already know this, but in Italian and I imagine other Romance languages, years are read as full numbers. So for instance 1968 (nineteen sixty-eight for us) is rendered one thousand nine hundred and sixty eight in Italian. It doesn’t sound longer or further either way. Convention, I guess. That aside, it’s true that three seven five does sound slightly less punishing until its true impact registers in the mind.

  7. 7  Refudiation  August 26, 2011, 3:01 am 

    Perhaps your theory is true, but if so everybody in America is in the grip of this unspeak, and applies it to non-commercial enumerations as well.

  8. 8  Dan A  August 30, 2011, 1:04 am 

    Whoever first invented selling stuff at price and 99p gets my ire. No I really don’t want that 1p, thanks. I’ve taken to just handing over the money and walking out of the shop before they can offer me the 1p and the receipt, it’s a small pleasure but I take those where I can get them.

    It’s why I always liked the music/entertainment shop Fopp, as they would sell CDs and DVDs at £10 or whatever exactly, so you could just hand over a note and be on your way. Of course I haven’t bought physical media in a shop in years.

  9. 9  A shop worker replies  September 1, 2011, 11:33 am 

    (a) £9.99 requires the till to be operated, to produce the penny change, preventing the shop assistant from failing to process the transaction and popping the ten pound note into their pocket.

    (b) “How much is this please?”
    “Thirteen ninety-nine”

  10. 10  skidmarx  September 1, 2011, 12:19 pm 


  11. 11  Matthew  September 5, 2011, 8:15 pm 

    “Flat-screen television” was a type of CRT television in the late 1980s/early 1990s, which had a flatter screen than a normal CRT television. For that reasons Plasma or LCD televisions were so called until quite recently, perhaps the different types made it too confusing?

  12. 12  Vronsky  January 4, 2012, 7:56 am 

    Prices in binary? Don’t think so. But I’ve been giving my age in hexadecimal for quite a while now.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts