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Time ago, I was talking with an American friend of mine. She was checking how much money she had and said "[…] a dime and four pennies."

Since 100 cents make a dollar, why did she say pennies?
Is there any difference between using cents and pennies in that sentence?
Does a dime and five cents have a different meaning?

36

The penny is the coin, and cent refers to how much the penny is worth.

If I told you I had 15 cents, that could be three nickels, or a dime and five pennies, or two nickels and five pennies (there are other possible combinations as well).

Since she already mentioned the dime, it makes sense that she also said "pennies" instead of "cents." I suppose she might have said:

I have a dime plus four more cents

That would be grammatical, but usually we speak of coins with coins and cents with cents.

Had you asked me the same question, and I had the same amount of money, I'd probably say either of these:

I have a dime and four pennies.

or

I only have fourteen cents.

I might lean toward the first wording if you asked me about currency:

Do you have a quarter?
No, I only have a dime and four pennies.

but the second if you asked me about money:

How much money do you have?
On me? Only fourteen cents.

One other possibility, if I had to count my money in order to answer your question (in other words, I knew I has some coins in my pocket, but didn't remember what they were), then I might say it like she did:

How much money do you have?
On me? Let me see. [pulls five coins from pocket] I've got a dime.... and four pennies.

I'd assume you could do the math as easily as I could, so I wouldn't bother to state the sum.

  • Could I use pennies also referring to other currencies? Suppose I am talking to an American in Italy, would "Do you have 5 pennies?" be understood as "Do you have 5 coins of one euro cent?" or would that person think I am talking of the coins used in the UK? – kiamlaluno Sep 12 '13 at 10:08
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    Every currency has their own words for coins, but many of these words go across currencies. For example, the word pfennig has the same root, and is associated with the same 1/100th fraction. If you asked me for pennies in Europe, I might presume you meant euro cents. You might also call them euro pennies, just to be clear, but I don't know how odd that would sound to someone who uses euros on a daily basis. – J.R. Sep 12 '13 at 12:00
  • I'd personally assume you meant US pennies. I'd get confused if you tried to refer to a coin other than the US or UK pennies as pennies. (Well, there are some other pennies still in circulation, but I don't think they make them anymore...) – snailcar Sep 12 '13 at 12:16
  • @kiamlaluno Coins is less ambiguous. To a British speaker, pennies are those small copper coloured coins. To an American and British speaker visiting Italy, I'd ask: "Do you have five coins of one cent?" – Mari-Lou A Dec 10 '13 at 10:06
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    @Sean - I disagree with "We don't have pennies" aspect. In the UK "penny" is the name of a coin and a value. If you have 3 penny coins and 1 two-penny coin, you have 3 pennies, but 5 pence. – James K Jul 25 at 20:11
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Using the word penny in American English is unofficial and a vestige of the time before America's independence from Britain.

There is a brief explanation of this at the following link http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18586854 , about half way down the page and titled Why is a cent called a penny?

It says:

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, there were 13 British colonies in the US. The British penny was used during that period - mostly as a reference point to compare prices. When the first US cents were minted in 1793, the term penny was used, as it was already familiar - and the name stuck, even though its official name is still one cent. In the UK, the plural of penny is pence. In the US, it is pennies.

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    Unofficial in what sense? No, J.R. has it right: penny is a particular type of coin, same as nickel, dime, and quarter. Cent is a monetary unit, not the name of a coin. Something that costs 5 cents can be paid for with a nickel or with five pennies. Neither term is more or less official than the other; they merely mean different things. – Martha Sep 12 '13 at 15:28
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    @Martha Unofficial in the sense that the government doesn't call it that. If you go to the US Mint website it talks about the "Lincoln Cent". – Random832 Sep 12 '13 at 18:39
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    @Martha, it's unofficial because the USA doesn't use coins with the word penny written on them. It does use coins with the words one cent. Despite this, many Americans still refer to one cent coins as pennies. – Tristan Sep 12 '13 at 21:08
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    While some numismatists might prefer "Lincoln cent", most people call them pennies. So do collector websites, news bloggers, and NPR. Even the US Mint admits they are called "pennies" every now and then (albeit parenthetically). Lincoln cent may be the more official name for the coin, but I'd hardly call the word penny "unofficial". – J.R. Sep 12 '13 at 23:07
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    Every now and then I come across some pedant who objects to the use of the word "penny" for an American coin. "We don't have PENNIES in America!" they'll insist. "Pennies are a British coin. We have CENTS." I just checked the U.S. mint, usmint.gov, and they refer to the one-cent piece as "one-cent piece (penny)". – Jay Dec 31 '15 at 19:33

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