I saw this sentence

At the end of the day, George subtracted his fish from the fisherman’s. The fisherman had beaten him by forty-seven!

I am wondering, whether forty-seven is the difference of the result or it means that the fisherman result is forty and Gorge result is seven.

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    In principle the written form is inherently ambiguous if you're prepaared to accept a hyphen as a "range indicator" (in speech, I think a momentary pause between the two numbers would be enough to force the 40 to [George's] 7 interpretation. But in practice that would be an unlikely parsing, because if the speaker were going to discard the word to he'd probably also discard preceding by (which would force the by having 47 more fish than George interpretation anyway). – FumbleFingers Sep 18 '17 at 16:05
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    ...I suppose if the text had ended with The fisherman had beaten him by 18:15 someone might (perversely?) ask whether that meant George caught 3 less fish, or whether the final tally wasn't made until quarter past six in the evening (on a 24-hour clock). – FumbleFingers Sep 18 '17 at 16:22
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    As it says George subtracted his fish from the fisherman’s it seems quite clear that the difference is 47. – Weather Vane Sep 18 '17 at 18:07

The "natural" reading of this is your first option, that 47 is the difference between George's count and the fisherman's count. It would be extremely rare for someone to write "forty-seven" when they mean for it to be read as two separate numbers; English style calls for numbers between 21 and 99 to be hyphenated when written out, as shown in this rule from GrammarBook.com:

Rule 2a. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.

Forty-three people were injured in the train wreck.
Twenty-seven of them were hospitalized.

For your alternate interpretation, I would expect the sentence to read "The fisherman had beaten him forty to seven!"


When we say "beaten by x", the x is normally the margin of victory. It is also bad writing practice to say forty-seven when what is meant is "forty fish to seven fish". So assuming the writer is skilled at English, the interpretation "47 more fish" is much more likely. The use of the phrase "George subtracted his fish..." supports this interpretation.

While it could be interpreted as 40 fish to 7 fish, this is unlikely. The writer would be aware that "forty-seven" is a poor phrasing, and should avoid it. If this were the intended meaning, there are lots of ways the author could have made it clear.

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