The Grammarphobia Blog

Penny loafing

Q: I’ve heard that the coin called the penny is really British and in America we have a cent. But it just feels natural to say “My son is out collecting pennies for Unicef.” The word “cent” seems off somehow. Do you agree?

A: A penny is a coin in both the UK and the US, though it has a different value in each place.

In the US, it’s worth a hundredth of a dollar or one cent. (In Canada, too, it’s worth a hundredth of a Canadian dollar.)

In Britain, a penny has been worth a hundredth of a pound since 1971. Before that, it was worth a twelfth of a shilling or a two-hundred-and-fortieth of a pound.

The original English penny was silver, but the coin has generally been made of copper or bronze since 1797.

The term “penny” is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, when it was spelled all different ways, including paening, pending, and peninc. It has usually been spelled “penny” on both sides of the Atlantic since the 17th century.

In Britain, the plural of “penny” is “pence” or “pennies” (I won’t go into details here). In the US, the plural is “pennies.”

Now, back to your question. It’s not only correct to say your son “is out collecting pennies for Unicef,” but that’s also the usual way to say it in the US.

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