I noticed that my Korean students struggled with large numbers in English. But once you learn how to tackle them, they’re quite easy—even easier than large Korean numbers. In fact, you’re going to be able to tell me what this number is in English—even if you can’t in Korean!

987,654,321,012,345,678,909,876,543,210,123,456 

That’s a big number! And typically, you would never need to read it. But learning how to read it can teach you about English number prefixes. Knowing these prefixes can help you understand more without memorizing new words. It can also help you figure out new words—without resorting to looking them up in the dictionary.

There are different types of number prefixes in English

As with most things related to English—things are a little complicated. Both Greek and Latin have influenced English. As such, there are remnants of both languages in the English we use today. This is evident when it comes to number prefixes. Though the Latin prefixes may be more common, the Greek ones are worth knowing.

A chart showing number prefixes for 1–10, 100, 1000, half, and many

I’m guessing at least a few of those look familiar. You may know several of them, but some might be new to you. Let’s look at some examples of how these prefixes combine with other root words to create new ones.

Modes of transportation with one, two, and three wheels

When doing this lesson with my students, I’d ask them, “What do you call a vehicle that you ride that has two wheels?” They would respond, “Bicycle.” A very common word in English that they were all familiar with. But I wondered if they’d ever fully understood the meaning of the word. 

Bicycle = bi (2) + cycle (circle, wheel)

I’d then ask them, “What do you call a similar vehicle with three wheels that young children ride?” There would usually be a few students to answer, “Tricycle.”

Tricycle = tri (3) + cycle (circle, wheel)

I picture of a woman riding a unicycle against a gray sky.

Finally, I’d tell them that I could ride a unicycle (a word most of them had never heard). And yes, I can actually ride a unicycle. I’d ask them, “How many wheels does a unicycle have?” They’d excitedly answer, “One!” and then there’d be lots of “oohs” and “ahhs.” Riding a bicycle is pretty common, but a unicycle—much less so. 

The shape of you

I’d then move on to other common words they’d likely encountered using number prefixes. Again words maybe they’d never really thought about before. I’d draw this shape on the board and ask them what it was.

A picture of a large stone triangle in a field.

Of course, they’d answer, “Triangle!” But then we’d look at the word more closely.

triangle = tri (3) + angle (corner, angle)

Then I’d draw this on the board.

An image of a large pink square with a black border

When I asked what it was called, and of course they’d respond, “Square.” I asked them if they knew another word for it. I’d then write “quadrilateral” on the board. And we’d look at the word more closely.

quadrilateral = Quadri (4) + lateral (side)

I explained that squares, rectangles, and parallelograms are quadrilaterals. They all have four sides.

I’d then move on to drawing more shapes and coaching the students to name them.

An image showing and labeling the following shapes: pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, decagon.

Many of the words that use these prefixes are related to math, but not all of them. These prefixes can be found in lots of other words.

Maybe you don’t like math, but what about sports?

I’d ask my students, “What do you call a race that involves three sports—swimming, cycling, and running?” I’d always get a few students that could answer, “Triathlon.”

triathlon = tri (3) + athalon (contest, competition)

I’d then ask them, “What is the winter sport where you cross-country ski and shoot targets?” Most of the time, they didn’t know. But then I’d remind them that a bicycle has two wheels and the sport I’d just mentioned has two events. That was usually enough for them to come up with “biathlon.”

biathlon = bi (2) + athalon (contest, competition)

A picture of a biathlete skiing against the backdrop of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics.

Then I’d move on to talking about track and field at the Olympics. There used to be a track and field event consisting of five events. The last one involved the shot put, high jump, 100-meter hurdles, long jump and 800 meters. The pentathlon was discontinued in 1984 and was replaced by the heptathlon. 

How many events in that one? Yup! Seven. There are men’s and women’s versions, but each has seven events. BTW, there’s now a modern pentathlon. It consists of five events: shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrian, and cross country running.

Finally, there’s a track and field event held over two days that includes ten events. The events are the same for men and women, but the order of events varies between the men’s and woman’s events. The ten events are: 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 metres, 110 metres hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, 1500 metres. What’s this one called? You guessed it—decathlon!

Okay, you’re not an athlete—perhaps you’re a musician

There are lots of words related to music that involve number prefixes. Music groups often consist of different numbers of people. A performance or group consisting of two people is called a duet

Such a group can also be referred to as a duo. Simon & Garfunkel were a famous American folk-rock duo. A group of three is called a trio. There have been many famous trios, but one of my favorites was the Canadian trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart (RIP), known as Rush.

A picture of four middle-aged to older men, members of a string quartet

The word quartet is usually used to refer to four instruments playing together. There are string quartets ( two violins, a viola and a cello) and piano quartets ( violin, viola, cello, and piano). 

As you’d assume, a quintet is a group of five instruments or performers. But there are also vocal quartets and quintets. One of the most famous was the Four Tops, a very successful Motown quartet. The Jackson 5 are arguably the best-known quintet, although The Temptations can’t be far behind.

If you know anything about music theory, you know the difference between a C and a D is a tone. But what do you call the difference between a C and a C#? That’s right, a semitone. 

The major scale consists of 8 notes—C D E F G A B C. The difference between the first and second C is called an octave. Young rockers often learn to solo using the pentatonic scale. It only consists of five notes. 

In music, you have whole and half notes, but you also have quarter notes (¼). And sometimes, you have to play three letters in the space of one beat. That’s called a triplet. And if you have to play six notes in the space of one beat, that’s called a sextuplet.

Speaking of triplets and sextuplets….

  • What do you call two people born to the same mother on the same day? Twins!
  • How about if there are three children born at the same time? Triplets!
An picture of the same woman in three different poses, representing triplets.
  • Four children born to the same mother on the same day? Quadruplets!
  • Five children? Quintuplets!
  • Six kids, one mom, one day? Sextuplets.
  • Seven offspring born at once? Septuplets.
  • Does anyone remember Octomom? Yup, she gave birth to eight children at once—octuplets!

And in May 2021, Halima Cisse gave birth to nonuplets—nine kids at once! That’s a lot of diapers!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…

Music not your thing? Well, maybe you’re here cause you like languages

Many people in my life speak more than one language. My father speaks French and English. My wife and son speak Korean and English. Sadly, I only consider myself fluent in English. 

I can get by in Korean, and I know some French, but I am definitely monolingual. My father, wife, and son are all bilingual. If my son ever decided to move to Canada and learn French, he’d be trilingual

A official sign from the government of Canada on a chain link fence that says Border Inspection / Contrôle frontalier.

Someone who can speak four languages is said to be quadrilingual. Some sources also state that quintilingual is a word for someone speaking five languages. But there’s a more common term—multilingual

You can also refer to someone who speaks many languages as a polyglot (poly=many/glot=language). As mentioned above, I am monolingual, or, if you prefer, a monoglot. The word for a person speaking two languages is a diglot. As you’d expect, a triglot is a person who speaks three languages.

You’re going to have to tune in next week to read that massive number

I know I told you I’d tell you how to read that ridiculously long number, and I will! But as often happens, once I delve into a topic, my posts start getting a little longer than anticipated. With me returning to a full week of work after a two-week vacation, I’m going to have to split this post into two. 

A picture of a woman holding to orange halves in front of her eyes.

But I promise next week I’ll not only teach you how to read that crazy long number but any number-—up to 36 digits long. And if you’re not Korean, I’ll teach you basic numbers in Korean. I guarantee you’ll be able to count to 999 in Korean faster than someone learning to count to 999 in English!

In the meantime, how far can you get reading that ridiculously large number? No cheating/Googling! I’ve given you lots of clues in this post—you should be able to figure out most of it on your own. But if you get stuck, I’ll guide you through it next week—promise!

One thought on “I bet you can count higher in English than in Korean

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