September 16, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Expressing age and numerals/numbers & beside or besides

Posted in beside/besides, expressing age, number/numeral at 6:01 am by dlseltzer


From the Pittsburgh

“All hospitals have very unique issues that affect all hospitals, it’s just proportional to size.”

Where to even begin with this sentence?

Tip 1: Expressing age and numerals/numbers

A reader writes:

I have a question for the language guru.

How does one indicate the age of person? For example:

Charlie is 3 years old.

Charlie is 3 years of age.

Charlie is 3 years.

Charlie is aged 3 years.

Charlie’s age is 3 years.

Charlie’s age is 3 years old.

Charlie’s age is 3 years of age.

I am not sure what is necessary, but “Charlie is 3 years” seems a bit odd and “… 3 years old…” seems odd too…

Would the correct grammar change if one substituted the name “Charlie” to an inanimate object such as “The grant…”

Okay, I’ll bite. I would say this:

Charlie is 3 years old. CORRECT-This is the most common way to phrase someone’s age.

Charlie is 3 years of age. CORRECT-This is a relatively common alternative, but it can be viewed as a bit stuffy.

Charlie is 3 years. WRONG-I don’t know if there is a rule for this, but I think you need the modifier ‘old’. FYI, an adjective that directly follows the noun it is modifying is called a post-positive adjective. ‘Old’ is the post-positive adjective in the first sentence on this list.

Charlie is aged 3 years. WRONG-Charlie sounds a bit like a bottle of wine.

Charlie’s age is 3 years. CORRECT-Here, the word, ‘age.’ substitutes for ‘old’ or ‘of age.’

Charlie’s age is 3 years old. WRONG-Redundant (see comment immediately above).

Charlie’s age is 3 years of age. WRONG-Too many ages.


Charlie is 3. CORRECT-Straight and to the point.

Charlie’s age is 3. CORRECT-See comment above.

Finally, I would not use the numeral ‘3,’ I would spell out the word, since we should spell out numbers under 10. So to use just the phrasings that are correct, we are left with:

Charlie is three years old.

Charlie is three years of age.

Charlie’s age is three years.

Charlie is three.

Charlie’s age is three.

So what happens when we remove the concept of people and substitute an inanimate noun? Well,

The grant is three years old. CORRECT-The grant has been around for three years.

The rest are wrong because each sentence refers to the grant’s age and a grant doesn’t have an age-only an existence.

The grant is three years of age. WRONG

The grant is three years. WRONG

The grant is aged three years. WRONG

The grant’s age is three years. WRONG

The grant’s age is three years old. WRONG

The grant’s age is three years of age. WRONG


I’ve had the grant for three years.

Finally, I’ve used the words ‘number’ and ‘numeral’ both in my explanation. So what is the difference? A number is the abstract concept, and numeral is the symbol we use to express the concept of number. For example, the number, three, is the concept of three things, and we express that concept by using the numeral, 3. The simplest definition I have found (and I have found it in multiple sources, so I don’t know whom to credit) is that it is like the difference between a person and a person’s name. Number is like the person, and numeral is like the person’s name.

Tip 2: Beside or besides

A reader writes:

Remember when we talked about the made-up word ‘Anyways’? I saw something similar:

“That is exciting! I bet she is just besides herself ”

Oh dear, Deb. Although ‘besides’ is indeed a word, it was used incorrectly here, and I thought you could make ‘Beside/Besides’ one of your topics.

Thanks, reader, for the suggestion. ‘Beside’ and ‘besides’ are often confused-generally, in conversation but sometimes in writing as well. Here’s the skinny:

[NOTE: Do you know what ‘skinny’ means in this context? I often wonder if I am dating myself with my language choices. ‘Skinny’ is slang for ‘information’ or ‘facts.’]

‘Beside’ means ‘next to’ or ‘near’ or is used to indicate that something is not relevant.

Please sit here, beside me, and I will tell you all you will need to know.

You’re right about the pastry being dry, but that is completely beside the point since I was talking about the filling.

‘Beside’ is a preposition and needs an object.

‘Besides’ means ‘in addition’ or ‘other than.’

Besides this man, I know of no one who can talk so long and say so little.

I am going to fetch vegetables from my garden and will pick a bunch of flowers, besides.

‘Besides’ can be a preposition and an adverb (and should be avoided in formal writing).

To be honest, this discussion of beside and besides gave me fits. When I started writing it, I was very clear on the distinction between the two. However, the more I looked into it, the more confused I became. Everybody (and I mean everybody) has different definitions of these two words that, in the end, obfuscate the meanings until you can’t decide which word is which. For example, besides ‘next to’ or ‘near,’ I found these definitions for ‘beside’:

in comparison to, compared with, outside, apart from, not connected to, by the side of,  except for, in addition to

Whoa, those last two are the actual definitions for ‘besides.’ No wonder we’re confused. Some even say that the two words can be used interchangeably. No way, I say.

It’s easy to keep these two straight if you ignore all of these other definitions, and just remember that ‘beside’ means ‘near’ or ‘irrelevant,’ and’ besides’ means ‘in addition.’



  1. Gloria Staskus said,

    further questions about age. For example, when you refer to an age group. “The program is open to children 6 to 12 years of age.” Is this correct? I see this all the time, but I think it is incorrect – “for children aged six to 12 years.”

    • dlseltzer said,

      Both examples are correct. The second way is a little more economical perhaps and could even be more economical: “for children aged six to 12.”

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