A scene from The Lesson Of Her Death (1993) by Jeffery Deaver

"Three point six million," Sayles says slowly, and the discussion goes round and round again. Sayles begins to understand something. These men court clients and patients and chief executive officers who routinely write them checks of ten twenty a hundred thousand dollars.

What does "checks of ten twenty a hundred thousand dollars" mean?

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    It could probably benefit from some commas: "ten, twenty, a hundred thousand dollars"; i.e. they're men who regularly write cheques of 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 dollars. – Anthony Grist Sep 1 at 11:54
  • Yeah that would be my reading too. Not gonna turn it into a full answer because I'm not sure. – Borgh Sep 1 at 12:19

As Anthony Grist pointed out, there should be commas, so it should be checks (cheques) of ten, twenty, a hundred thousand dollars.
It's three different checks: ten thousand, twenty thousand, and one hundred thousand dollars.

They routinely write checks (cheques) of varying amounts between ten thousand and one hundred thousand dollars.

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    And to be clear, it’s not (necessarily) literal. It’s saying these people are used to handling significant sums of money on a daily basis. It’s become normal to them, they’re probably blasé. – Tim Sep 1 at 20:17
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    Omitting the commas, stylistically, puts you in the consciousness of the narrator, whose mind is racing at realizing the scale these men work at. – CCTO Sep 2 at 3:01
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    @CCTO's comment is important. This isn't a mistake that a copy editor should have caught; this is an author's stylistic choice to achieve an effect. And I think it's effective, though it appears to be a possible stumbling block to someone who is still learning English. – JonathanZ supports MonicaC Sep 2 at 9:16
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    @JonathanZsupportsMonicaC - hard disagree. As it is, it's reads as rubbish. – Davor Sep 2 at 12:25
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    It's not rubbish; it's not an uncommon stylistic choice. Salman Rushdie uses it frequently in Midnight's Children, a Booker Prize winner. – Patrick Stevens Sep 2 at 13:46

In English, when you have a list of numbers that are all modified by the same factor-word (like "hundred", "thousand", "million", "billion"), it's common to split the "thousand-dollars" (or whatever factor) off from the other values in the list and treat it almost like it's a unit of its own.

"You could make five, ten, even twenty thousand dollars" functions the same way as "ten, twenty, or even a hundred meters" would, with "thousand dollars" applied to each of the items in the list. It's only context that tells us that it means "five thousand" and "ten thousand" (because it would be strange to suggest that this job could earn you five dollars, ten dollars, or twenty thousand dollars, and if that's what was actually meant, we would treat it as the punchline to a joke).

Why the author left out the commas, I can't say -- without them, it feels like it's written to be confusing, at least at first glance.

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Besides commas, it would benefit from hyphens, as, as noted, they're "checks of ten-, twenty-, a [one]-hundred-thousand dollars," to indicate that each value is compound-modifying 'thousand.'

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  • 12
    The Millennial jab takes away from--rather than contributes to--your answer. – IronEagle Sep 1 at 22:37
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    Millennial jab aside, hyphens are not correct there, at least in every dialect of English that I'm familiar with. – John Montgomery Sep 1 at 23:59
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    The extract wasn't written by a millennial....(see edit history) but by someone probably someone closer to your age; a boomer or generation Xer. The book was first published in 1993 – Mari-Lou A Sep 2 at 9:45

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