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When you speak English, is it correct to say: "It takes 20 coins of 5 cents to make 1 dollar" ? Or it should be: "It takes 20 5-cent coins to make 1 dollar". The latter sounds like "it takes 25 cent...".

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    you would use the second version and put a conscious break between "twenty" and "five." "coins of x cents" is not idiomatic at all.
    – Esther
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:40
  • @Esther Understood. Thank you.
    – isedgar
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:53
  • Idiomatically, in the US it would be "20 nickels". I don't know about other English-speaking countries that have 5-cent coins.
    – The Photon
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:56

2 Answers 2

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Both are technically grammatical, but the second is the normal idiom. That's the purpose of the dash in 5-cent, to clarify which part of the sentence that number belongs to.

Normally in spoken English, you would have a slight pause between two numbers when you want to distinguish them, similar to the kind of pause that's written with a comma.

In the United States, you have a third option; their coins all have names. Penny, nickel, dime, and quarter. So you could say, in the US, "It takes 20 nickels to make a dollar". This has the advantage of not having the awkward pause between the numbers, but the disadvantage that the audience needs to know the value of a nickel already.

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  • I disagree that "coins of x cents" can be used at all. It is technically not grammatically incorrect, but not in the slightest bit idiomatic.
    – Esther
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:51
  • @Esther I agree; I'll edit to make that clearer.
    – Werrf
    Apr 28, 2022 at 17:52
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The accepted answer by Werrf is perfectly correct. I'm just going to offer a bit of additional information that would be too big for a comment.


"It takes 20 5-cent coins to make 1 dollar." sounds like "25 cent-coins".

You are quite correct that this sort of ambiguity can occur. The way that native speakers typically get around this kind of ambiguity is either through word choice ("20 nickels") or through changes in stress and/or cadence when speaking. (And also, sometimes short phrases or snippets may be ambiguous in isolation, but become unambiguous in a wider context of the full sentence or paragraph.)

If we imagine a robotic voice-synthesizer saying the phrase with precisely equal timing for each syllable... then "twen-ty-five-cent-coins" is completely ambiguous to the listener as either "twenty-five cent-coins" or "twenty five-cent coins" (or even "twenty-five-cent coins").

However, real-life human speakers aren't that robotic in the way they speak. Sometimes we say things faster than normal, sometimes we add slight pauses, sometimes we stress certain syllables more than usual, but almost always we do so following common patterns that make listening less ambiguous.

In your example, the way to remove ambiguity is by emphasizing the intended separation between "twenty" and "five" while also blurring the separation between "five" and "cent"; in this way five-cent is most clearly understood as a compound- adjective describing the type of coins and with twenty being its own separate adjective describing the quantity.

A: (speaking quickly) "It takes twenty-five-cent-coins to make a dollar."
B: "Excuse me, but did you just say 'twenty-five... cent-coins' or... 'twenty... five-cent... coins'?"
A: "Oh, sorry, I should be more clear. It takes twenty... five-cent coins... to make... one... dollar."

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