This is an excerpt from an NBC news article. Does "numbers" refer to the latest year's English scores and "they" refer to the previous 30 years' English ones? If it is the case, should "they" replaced with "ones" because "they" does not refer to the latest year's English scores? Like "And in English, numbers dropped more than ones have in 30 years." This is the news.

We’re back now with the alarming but for many parents not surprising new data on just how pandemic schooling has affected students. Here's Stephanie Gosk. After two and a half years of COVID disruptions, it is time to take stock of the nation's schools, and the picture isn't good.

“We had interrupted school. We’d have school closures. Kids missed school for a time ‘cause they got COVID.” The National Assessment of Educational Progress tested nearly 15,000 9-year-olds from across the country, something the organization has done every year since the '70s.

For the first time ever, third and fourth graders lost ground in math. And in English, numbers dropped more than they have in 30 years. The study highlights the disparities. Higher achievers' scores fell three points in math. Lower achievers' dropped ten.

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    It's spoken text, so it's far from perfect English. For example, We had interrupted school. We’d have school closures is a bizarre combination of tenses that wouldn't normally make it into print. It's impossible to say whether numbers refers to the number of students taking exams in maths (most likely from the vocabulary), or their test scores (logically most likely). But unquestionably, they refers to the numbers (whatever they represent). Mar 9, 2023 at 15:37
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    ...sorry - I stopped looking at the text after ...30 years. What follows makes it unambiguously clear we're talking about scores. Idiomatically, numbers is a poor word choice here (which a proofreader would probably change before sending the text to the printers). But there is a tendency to say the numbers don't look good when any unpromising data becomes available. Mar 9, 2023 at 15:42
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    "Ones" sounds less natural than "they" to me. "Ones" normally denotes individual items or occasionally encountered things, not aggregate data, and is more commonly used with a qualifier such as "these ones", "the blue ones", etc, whereas you couldn't use "they" with such qualifiers. (It's true that "scores dropped more than they have in 30 years" would be better, but that's nothing to do with ones vs they.)
    – Stuart F
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:25
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    That "verb tense clash" isn't some clever literary device with a deep meaning. Like I said, it's just a trivial "slip of the tongue" in a spoken context. Mar 10, 2023 at 11:51
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    The only "oddity" I see is that numbers is a rather loose usage here, corresponding to scores [specifically, for English tests]. It's irrelevant that every year it's a different set of 9-year-olds taking the tests - what matters is that the tests themselves are "comparable" from year to year, so it's meaningful to compare the scores to see how they change over time. Mar 10, 2023 at 18:28

1 Answer 1


"And in English, numbers dropped more than they have in 30 years". means:

"The numbers in English dropped more [now] than they have [dropped] in 30 years".

In speech, to go on to a new subject, speakers will often use this type of structure: And in [subject], x occurred.

Yes, numbers here means test scores. And no, you don't change the words of what an interviewed person says.

Bear in mind that not everything a person says in an interview, will sound like a written, edited text, all clean and shiny,

  • In "And in English, numbers dropped more than they have in 30 years," I guess if it means "Numbers in English now dropped more than numbers have dropped in 30 years," the former numbers are not identical with the latter numbers since the former is a different set of scores of a different set of students at a different time compared with the latter, so the latter numbers cannot be replaced with "they", which refers to the former numbers. The sentence is spoken by the reporter, not an interviewee, so I guess it should be supposed to be rather refined. Mar 10, 2023 at 14:19
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    @JiHyunLee In this sentence: And in English, numbers dropped more than they have in 30 years. There are no "former and latter numbers". There is how the numbers behaved this year compared to the last 30 years. The speech is not ""refined'. It is just standard speech.
    – Lambie
    Mar 10, 2023 at 14:59

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