Why We Use Numbers as Labels

Have you ever wondered why ordinal numbers are used for labeling things - like house numbers and boat numbers? http://mathfour.com/?p=9680We often use numbers as labels – never intending to do arithmetic with them at all.

My family enjoyed an afternoon on Lake Conroe with some friends. When it was time to go back, we let the people know which trailer was ours with a sign.

Our boat number “36” had no actual value as a number, though. We didn’t add anything to it. We didn’t take the square root of it. (Okay, well – I did. But it did me no good.)

The boat could’ve been “F” or “Josephine,” just as easily as it was “36.”

Using Letters as Labels

If you use letters, you only have 26. You can double up if you want, like Microsoft Excel does in the columns. After Z comes AA, AB, AC, etc. And then after AZ, you get BA, BB, BC, BD,…

But this feels weird. And is confusing.

So if you have more than 26 things, you tend to label with words or numbers.

Using Words as Labels

Labeling things with words is nice – especially if you don’t have to order them. This is why we label rural and suburban streets with words. And people get labeled with words, too. I’m labeled “Bon,” for instance.

Ordering with words, though, is quite difficult. Sure, we teach kids to put things in alphabetical order. And when we file things in a filing cabinet, we use this order. But there is strain in ordering alphabetically.

For some of us, a lot of strain.

So we stick to numbers for things that require ordering.

Using Numbers as Labels

Numbers fall in line easily. We know what comes before and after 1087. Even if houses are skip-numbered, we’re cool with it.

Inner city streets often get numbers. They’re linear. So it’s easy to see that 11th Street Cafe is between 10th and 12th Streets.

But we never do arithmetic with numbers as labels.

When’s the last time you added your house number to your next door neighbor’s? Are you sad at the post office when your P.O. Box number’s less than the other guy?

And did my friend take the square root of his boat number?


Nor will he.

Where are the numbers as labels in your world?

The boat, slip and trailer were all number 36. And the slip was at the end of a row – right next to slip #37. All were numbers as labels.

Now it’s your turn. Look around. Ask your kids.

What numbers are there that label things? Do you (or would you) ever do arithmetic with them?

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One Response to Why We Use Numbers as Labels

  1. Oh, but you DO do arithmetic with house numbers – or at least, I used to: if I wanted to know how far away I was from home, I’d check the house number I was cycling past, subtract it from my house number and divide by 100 to get the rough number of blocks left to ride.

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