100: A Hundred/One Hundred

Why is saying 'a hundred' more common than saying 'one hundred' in American English?


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy and this is our one-hundredth podcast. Yes, a milestone has been reached. I feel pretty good about making it to a hundred shows, and I have no intention of stopping.

You, my listeners, are who keep allow me to keep publishing these shows every week, and today, on this special occasion I want to give an extra-special thank you to all of you. Truly, thank you.

For today's show, I thought I'd compare the phrase "one hundred" to the phrase "a hundred." I've noticed that non-native speakers usually choose one hundred instead of a hundred, even when to my ears, a hundred would sound better. This is one of those episodes where a pronunciation lessons merges with a grammar lesson.

So, what is the difference? Well, there is little difference in meaning between one hundred and a hundred. Even the Cambridge Dictionary of American English gives one definition of the word a simply as one. When I looked up the word a I was looking for a little more detail in the definition than that! The dictionary on my MacBook gives a definition of a that I thought best expresses why we can say either one hundred or a hundred.

That dictionary says the following:

used with units of measurement to mean one such unit

It gives the examples a hundred, a quarter of an hour

Basically, that means that a and one to have the same meaning before a unit of measure. The unit of measure with we are talking about today is the unit of hundred. Yes, it is a generic unit of measure, not like a mile or a kilogram or a cup, but it is still one unit.

To make it more obvious, lets switch to something easier to picture than a hundred. Let's talk about food. Let's pretend someone is giving you a list of things to buy at the market. The person could say the following:

I need a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and an apple.

Or the person could say the following:

I need one dozen eggs, one gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and one apple.

The items you are expected to buy is exactly the same, and the grammar is equally correct. However, the person probably wouldn't say it the second way, the way that uses the word one instead of a. Why not?

Because it messes up the rhythm of the sentence. Remember function words and content words? Content words are the important words of a sentence, usually our nouns, main verbs, and some adjective and adverbs. Function words are there to give us the correct grammar and make sure our words all agree with one another; they are words like prepositions, auxiliary verbs, and articles.

In the example sentences

need a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and an apple.

it's easy to pick out the content words:

dozen eggs
gallon milk
seven pounds cherries

The function words:

I, a, a, of, of, and an

fall into the background. We need those words, but we don't need to be as clear with them as with the content words. Since we want those words to become small, it should not be a surprise that we would choose the single-sound word a over the three-sound word one, (w sound, short u, n sound)

I'll say both sentences again for you to compare the rhythm:

I need a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and an apple.
I need one dozen eggs, one gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and one apple.

Function words are very flexible, however, and can become content words quite easily. First, they need to become important for some reason. Then, that importance needs to be expressed by saying the word louder and for more time. The pitch of the word will usually become higher as well.

If I wanted to stress that I only needed a single gallon of milk, I would probably switch from the tiny a to the more substantial one. I would do this if my listener, for some reason, was expecting me to want more than one gallon of milk and I want to make sure that only one gallon is purchased. Listen to the sentence with this added emphasis:

I need a dozen eggs, one gallon of milk, seven pounds of cherries, and an apple.

If I switched all the a's and the an to one, the contrast, and my emphasis would be lost.

So, let's get back to a hundred versus one hundred. Think of the word hundred as a unit, just like the word dozen is a unit meaning twelve. Let's compare podcasts to eggs, just this once.

In the first case, I am not trying to emphasize the number, but rather the product.

I can say:

I cooked an egg.
I cooked a dozen eggs.
I cooked a hundred eggs.

If I am talking about podcasts, I can say:

I recorded a podcast.
I recorded a dozen podcasts.
I recorded a hundred podcasts.

Today, however, if someone asked me how many podcasts I've recorded, I would probably be so excited that I have reached a hundred, that I am going to emphasize the unit of a hundred by using one instead of a:

I've recorded one hundred podcasts.

A similar idea is how many podcasts you have listened to. If you have listened to all one hundred of them, and it has been exhausting for you, you can give similar emphasis to the number:

I've listened to one hundred podcasts.

Let's practice, just a bit, to give you a feel for the different rhythm of a couple of sentence. First I'll say a sentence with the word a, then the same sentence with the word one. I'll allow time for you to repeat after me:

I'd like a cup of coffee.
I'd like one cup of coffee.
I read a chapter of the novel.
I read one chapter of the novel.
I read a hundred pages of the book.
I read one hundred pages of the book.

All of those sentences are correct in certain contexts. It is up to you to decide how important each single unit is, whether it is a cup, a chapter, or a hundred of something.

If you would be able to learn this in more depth by reading along as you listen, all of our podcasts are available from our website, www.pronuncian.com/podcast. I'll also link to the free content word and function word lessons from this weeks transcripts.

That's all for today, everyone. Thanks for listening to our one-hundredth episode.

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