Rantings of a sub-editor

August 7, 2010

For what it’s worth

Filed under: word choice,worth — substuff @ 2:47 pm
Tags: , ,


This is not one of my tub-thumping posts – it is more of a reflective/opinion-gathering one.

As ever, I’d be interested to hear what others think, so don’t hold back…

I put up the following post on Twitter yesterday:


Opinion on the ‘worth’ in this sentence? “Around 2,500 tonnes worth of CDs alone are thrown away each year.”

I should have phrased it better. I know very well that ‘worth’ is redundant in this sentence – I was hoping to stir up some furious responses, because this is one mistake that really bugs me. Tonnes worth? That’s crazy! Instead, I just got a couple of messages telling me to delete it. Thanks guys…

Last night I recounted this fascinating story to my boyfriend (I know, I know, we should get a room, right?) and he was satisfyingly horrified. We started mulling over where this error must stem from, and before long we realised it must be from when we talk about money – “£3,000′ worth of damage”, etc.

I, rather rashly, claimed that ‘worth’ was still redundant, even when talking about monetary value. In fact, I claimed, it was always redundant. I say rashly, because I soon realised I was wrong and had to beat a hasty retreat. My boyfriend, on the other hand, claimed that it was always necessary to include it when talking about money. I guess that’s the difference when you put a news sub and an academic in a room together – one will always want to cut, cut, cut and the other will want to define. Anyway, in the end we  confused one another to such an extent that we thought it would be far wiser to concentrate on drinking wine instead.

Now, in the harsh light of day/dim light of the Sunday Times subs’ bench, my thinking is thus:

if you omit the ‘worth’, your sentence makes a claim about an actual, real-world transaction

if you include the ‘worth’, you are expressing a conceptual value

Bear with me, bear with me, I know that sounds like bollocks, but I’m getting there…

“The vandals caused £3,000 of damage” – this suggests that the repairs have been paid for, £3,000 has changed hands.

“The vandals caused £3,000′ worth of damage” – the repairs would cost £3,000, but may or may not be carried out. Or they would usually cost £3,000, but may have in fact been done for less.

We also tried out an example using years. Is there a difference between: “Mr Baker’s matchstick ship represents three years’ work” and “Mr Baker’s matchstick ship represents three years’ worth of work”?

To me, the former states clearly that the ship was worked on fairly solidly for three consecutive years. The latter is slightly more malleable – it could perhaps have taken a longer period overall, but with the work done less consistently. The work added up to three years – it was worth three years – but it may not have been, in actual fact, three years.

I’m beginning to think I’m making this more complicated than it needs to be. Anyone want to chip in?

Oh, and Ps. what the heck do you do with the possessive apostrophe in “three thousand pounds’ worth of damage” if you want to write it with “£3,000”? I’ve gone for “£3,000′ worth”, but I’m not entirely convinced.



  1. Your analysis seems spot on about the conceptual, rather than actual, value of worth, but you shouldn’t use any possessive apostrophe with sums (especially as it is the unit – the pound – rather than the quantity – 3,000 – that needs the apostrophe and that is placed before the number). Leave it out.

    Comment by Paddy — August 7, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

    • Leave it ahhht! (some kind of Eastenders voice)

      So would you do “£3,000-worth of damage”, or just no punctuation there at all?

      Comment by substuff — August 10, 2010 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  2. I was pondering this very issue this week. And I think you’ve nailed it. Also, I think you’re right with “£3,000-worth of damage”. We had “£3bn of crops” in The Week, but now I’m thinking I should have put “-worth” in…

    Comment by Mike — August 20, 2010 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

    • Funny, isn’t it – I started out from a point of wanting to wipe “worth” off the face of the Earth, and not only have I ended up feeling that in some circumstances it is absolutely necessary, but I’ve persuaded others too. Hmph. Just what we need – more damn words!

      Comment by substuff — August 21, 2010 @ 8:31 am | Reply

  3. I agree with your differentiation on the conceptual vs actual value of worth. But I feel that the apostrophe, when we write the numbers numerically, should be invisible, ie “£3,000 worth of damages” read as “three thousand pounds’ worth”.

    Thank you for the blog; I find it very interesting.

    Comment by Khairie — October 9, 2010 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

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