You can then open the chest, and take from it as many pence as you please, they are only copper pence, but if you would rather have silver money, you must go into the second chamber.

Source: The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Anderson

Is that boldface correct grammatically?

Why is that "pence", not "pences"?

  • 7
    Partially irrelevant pedantry: Andersen's original story was written in Danish and so does not say "pence". The word he used was "skillinger" which is cognate to shilling, though the value of the actual Danish skilling coin that circulated in Andersen's time seems to have been closer to an English penny than to a shilling. Mar 25, 2019 at 1:56
  • 3
    Exchange rates aside, the skilling was the smallest named unit of currency in circulation, and the context makes it clear that Andersen was not using the word to refer to a particular value, but as a generic word for small common coins. Thus a truer translation to modern English would probably be "pennies" rather than "pence" Mar 25, 2019 at 2:34
  • 3
    You could have started by looking up pence in a dictionary.
    – Carsten S
    Mar 25, 2019 at 9:28

1 Answer 1


Because pence is plural. It is historically a plural of penny, and is still used that way in some contexts in British English.

Specifically, it is normal when referring to value: "one penny, two pence" (though many people say "one p, two p")

It is not currently used when referring to individual coins: most people would say "there is a pile of pennies on the table", not "there is a pile of pence on the table". In that respect, the passage you quote is archaic.

  • 7
    Yes, they did. Example from George Eliot, 1868 (quoted in OED): " A poor pocket-picking scoundrel, who will steal your loose pence while you are listening round the platform."
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 24, 2019 at 19:49
  • 7
    I believe the term p is specific to the British new pence (i.e. post-decimalization). I thought it was adopted to distinguish it from the pre-decimal penny (whose abbreviation was d), and I don't think it would be used for pennies of another currency. Mar 24, 2019 at 19:56
  • 1
    Saying "one p, two p" only started when the UK converted to decimal currency in 1972, probably because during the changeover it was long winded to keep saying "old pence" and "new pence" (the new ones were worth 2.4 times as much as the old ones!)
    – alephzero
    Mar 24, 2019 at 19:57
  • 11
    @Rupe It's not archaic. It is still often used in British English. You can say "I only have 15 pence" or "I only have 15 p", but you would never say "I only have 15 pennies", unless you meant "I only have 15 one-penny coins" and not "I only have coins worth £0.15" (for example one 10p and one 5p coin).
    – alephzero
    Mar 24, 2019 at 20:03
  • 8
    @alephzero: that's exactly the point I made in my answer. Those of us who say "penny" rather than "p" do say "pence" for a value, but not referring to coins.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 24, 2019 at 20:07

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .