How to make the numbers pencil

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Josh Barro, "The Final Word on Mitt Romney's Tax Plan", Bloomberg 10/12/2012:

Rosen also depends on aggressive assumptions about macro-level dynamic effects, where taxes rise not because individual taxpayers report more taxable income but because the economy grows as a whole. In other words, he is depending on rosy — and not necessarily warranted — economic assumptions to make the numbers pencil. [emphasis added]

"To make the numbers pencil"? Economists can certainly make numbers do almost anything, but can they also make numbers crayon, or chalk, or dry-erase marker? And what would it mean if they did?

In the case of the penciling numbers, the process apparently starts with a simple conversion: "to pencil (numbers) out" meaning "to write (numbers) out in pencil (to fill in the blanks in a formula)", i.e. as a rough draft:

At intermission, Kraus ducked out to a pay phone and dialed Omaha. He and Buffett penciled out some numbers for a deal. Buffett said something about going on a trip, and Kraus went back to Beethoven, saying nothing to his wife or the client.

Generally speaking, when trying to pencil out a more profitable break-even point, it's best to focus on your costs.

It is conceivable that your Web site could feature all three levels of access — free, registered, and premium — but if so, be sure to pencil out each element to determine how the costs of providing each compares in terms of lead generation, prospect list building, or customer relations.

The use of pencil as a verb goes back to the 17th century — the OED cites

1610   P. Holland tr. W. Camden Brit. i. 631   Lanthony..the situation of which Abbay Giraldus Cambrensis..shall pensile it out unto you for mee.
1621   T. W. tr. S. Goulart Wise Vieillard 98   Horace in his art of Poetrie doth pensill and picture out an old man in this manner.
1631   J. Weever Anc. Funerall Monuments 372   These words thereupon being most artificially pensild.
1641   J. Johnson Acad. Love 34   A garland of painted flowers, which was so lively pencilled and garnished with proper colours, that the laborious bees imagining it to bee reall [etc.].
1673   E. Hickeringill Gregory 256   Clean Latin style..pencill'd whether by himself or any other linguist.

VERB+out combinations often express progress to completion or exhaustion; in any case, the modern "pencil out" examples carry an implication that the penciled-out values add up appropriately, at least in principle:

Something's bound to go wrong or change even though everything is penciled out in your plan.

Then there's a diathesis change: <X pencils out Y> turns into <Y pencils out>, still with the implication that Y adds up appropriately as a plan:

What do the numbers say? Can you afford that media buy? Crunch the numbers. If the numbers pencil out, then by all means go get the money, but if they don't, then don't.

It is possible they might ask voters to approve increased taxes to cover such a position if the estimates pencil out, but Brenaman said that depends on what they learn at Friday's workshop.

From there,  a run-of-the-mill inchoative-to-causative shift gives us "to make the numbers pencil out"

"On one hand, we had to create the pond as an amenity, but build the density to make the numbers pencil out," says Coyle, adding that Astoria already is built out when it comes to housing.

Then the (not) well-known phenomenon of out-ellipsis, and …


  1. Rubrick said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    I'm also curious about the (apparently standard) use of "pencil out" to mean "fill in in a rough manner". I would use "pencil in" for that ("pencil me in for next Tuesday"). By extension, I would normally expect "pencil out" to mean "tentatively cross out".

    [(myl) There are certainly plenty of examples out there of "pencil out" in the sense of "cross out" or "rub out", e.g. "But her own use of language was so distorting and hostile, you would have to pencil out skeptical and write in 'belligerent.'" or "But before mailing the letter, Brett had second thoughts about the words he had chosen; so he pencilled out the word 'after' and replaced it with 'if.'"

    But I was surprised to find that "pencil out" in the sense of "fill out in draft form" seems to be several times more common.]

  2. TomY said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    I agree.
    Australian here. "to pencil in", say, a date in my calendar is to mark an appointment subject to future confirmation. I've not heard of "pencil out" but it's a logical extension to "pencil in".

    The use of "pencil out" to mean "fill out, completely" is new to me. Anecdotal evidence, of course, but surely that's a type of evidence?

  3. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    My understanding of something, or other having "penciled out", in this instance, "numbers", is yet another way of saying everything appears to add up, or seems entirely doable.

    Further, "Everything is pencilled out" suggests all the "T's are crossed and the "I"s dotted. As if there is little room for unanticipated surprises going forward.

    Then there's the expression "chalk it up to…", relating to another familiar writing 'tool', which suggests such-and such is the reason for this particular outcome, or eventuality. But I digress.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    I'm not surprised at Mark's surprise. This happens so often here—where some usage that sounds utterly unfamiliar (like pencil out) turns out to be common or even dominant—that I'm really starting to wonder what's going on. I don't think my variety of English is too unusual, judging by all the people I talk to every day in a reasonable cosmopolitan college town, and yet… Is there some kind of deep segmentation in the English speech community such that such divergent norms can exist unnoticed?

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 8:02 pm


  6. Mark Mandel said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    As in
    • hang out > hang
    • ?: a washout > a wash

    I've noted the loss of several different particles in V + Pt verbs, but this Android input pane is to small to list them.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

    Along with hang out > hang, there's chill out > chill, flip out > flip, flake out > flake

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

    Here's a list, for those wanting to play at home. Most don't seem to fit this pattern. (I'm amused that lez out is in that list.)

  9. Mark Mandel said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    I remembered "bail (on NP)" < "bail out (on NP)" 'abandon, give up', but Rod's pointer to Wiktionary has largely obsoleted my list.

  10. Andrew Janssen said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 12:17 am

    I've always interpreted to pencil out to have a strong connotation of estimation or haste; you pencil out a plan or budget to see if the numbers make sense before you set anything in stone, to mix a metaphor. But to pencil without a preposition following it, as in the first example, strikes me as an unusual usage.

  11. SlideSF said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 2:10 am

    I take the expression "pencil out" to mean solve, or "work it out with a pencil", like a math problem (not an accountant with constipation). It could also mean, I suppose "to fudge", as in "cooking the books" the way one might with an expense account that wasn't quite kosher, or a Federal budget proposal.

    To "pencil in" is to tentatively set up an appointment, subject to confirmation.

  12. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 6:11 am

    "not an accountant with constipation" Slide, that's an old, old joke. I remember it from school (back in the early '60s in East Anglia) when it was the maths master who supposedly would "work it out with a pencil".

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    "Pencil in" isn't limited to setting up appointments, though. Ghits include

    I guess I should add that I don't do math, but I'll find someone to pencil in the numbers for me!


    If you are considering relocating to Santa Fe or purchasing investment property or land to buy and hold, our property taxes are something important to consider when you pencil in the numbers.

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    Thanks for fixing my botched HTML, Mark or whoever. Man, yesterday was not a good day for my typing.

  15. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    I've always interpreted to pencil out to have a strong connotation of estimation or haste; you pencil out a plan or budget to see if the numbers make sense before you set anything in stone, to mix a metaphor.

    Indeed, and there seems to be an interesting semantic shift going on with the diathesis change. If you're pencilling out numbers, they're preliminary and may not add up yet. But if the numbers pencil out, that means they do add up, and can be written in ink.

  16. MattF said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 7:13 am

    'Pencil in' is pretty common, but I've never seen or heard 'pencil out' before– which is interesting in that 'pencil out' seems to have a pretty specific computational sense and computations are what I do for a living.

  17. Nine said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    I guess one can pencil it out, pencil it in, chalk it up [to experience], or pen [a letter]. My daughter even crayoned a wall in her younger days. But I am stumped on dry-erase marker. Sorry.

  18. Andrew said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    This reminds me of a similar phenomenon where the expression "rule out", originally to strike out text with a line using a ruler, has acquired an illogical opposite of "rule in." This is now a standard cliche of politicians, who love to say things like "we're not ruling anything in, and we're not ruling anything out". E.g. see , though in that case it's said by a police(spokes)man.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    I often hear "throw" where I'd expect "throw out" (discard as garbage).

  20. boris said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    Rule in still sounds odd to me and not because it's illogical (rule out has nothing to do with rulers in my idiolect), but because it's "not a word". I hear it all the time, so I don't know where my subjective annoyance comes from.

  21. Brett said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    @Nine: I think the use of "marker" as a verb is blocked by the existence of "mark," from which it is derived.

  22. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Here's a few more fairly familiar "out" phrases that I managed to retrieve from my fuzzy memory bank:

    —zone out> zone

    —fake out> fake

    —space out> space

    —freak out> freak

    —opt out> opt

    —'vegg out'> 'vegg'

    —mellow out> mellow

    Although "hang", and "hang out" (earlier examples) seem perfectly interchangeable, as in the sentence, "I think I'll just hang (or hang out) here, for a bit, and catch my breath.", I don't believe all the examples I cited would work, interchangeably.

    Perhaps one could both "freak out", or "freak", and the same meaning would be maintain.

    One could "vegg out, or "vegg" and still retain the gist of meaning. The same w/ "zone out" and "zone".

    Yet to my ear, "mellow out", "opt out", and "space out", seem awkward if used without the "out".

  23. Chandra said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    I've always thought of the "rule" in "rule out" as being more related to the verb meaning "to set rules" than with the physical object.

    As for "pencil out", I don't see it as a semantic inversion to go from "pencilling out" (with uncertainty) to "being pencilled out" (with certainty). I read it much like the phrase "test out" – You test out, or try out, a theory to see if it tests out, or holds up to evidence. I could easily see this shifting to something like "Let's make sure this theory tests out".

    "Make the numbers pencil", on the other hand, is strikingly weird to my subjective ear.

  24. Chandra said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    @ALEX MCCRAE – "Opt out" wouldn't work for "opt" because they have opposite meanings. I could see some of my granola hippie friends telling someone to "mellow", though. As for "space out", the construction "He's totally spaced" is one I'm sure I've heard, and I could imagine maybe "Don't space on me", but I don't think that's common.

  25. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 2:23 pm


    Right on, sister.(Pass the wheat germ, and sprouts. HA!)

    For me, to say ask someone to "mellow", basically has the same feel, and intention, as to "chill", the attenuated versions of "mellow out" and "chill out', respectively. (All suggesting, just relax, calm down, and be cool.)

    Good point re/ why "opt" wouldn't work standing alone from "opt out", as "opt" has an implicit notion of opting in, or for, whilst "opt out" is clearly the opposite.

    The stand-alone "space"(meaning to zone out, or run amok) if used as a substitute for "space out" is a tricky one. It would take some getting used to for my ear.

    Far out!

  26. Bob Ladd said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Another English speaker here who's never heard pencil out, and for whom pencil in (='tentatively agree [an appointment]') is completely normal.

    Another verb+particle item that loses the particle is pissed off.

  27. SeaDrive said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Contrast to doing something in ink, i.e. permanent, final draft.

  28. Margaret Dean said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    Another verb+particle item that loses the particle is pissed off.

    Though only in American usage. In British idiom "pissed" means "drunk."

  29. Mark Mandel said,

    October 16, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

    I'm with Boris: Rule in still sounds odd to me. Is it ever used — well, better to ask if it is significantly much used — without the balancing "rule out"? Let's agree to rule out such uses as "The referee ruled [Jones|the ball] in" = 'in bounds'.

  30. Glenn Bingham said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 1:43 am

    @Margaret Dean

    The American pissed off ~ pissed doesn't work in a transitive use.

    John was pissed off.
    John was pissed.

    Bill pissed off John.
    Bill pissed John off.
    *Bill pissed John.

    It might be a pattern:

    John freaked out.
    John freaked.

    Bill freaked out John.
    Bill freaked John out.
    *Bill freaked John.

  31. Ken Brown said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    "Bill freaked John." seems fine to me. No need for the asterisk of unlanguage.

  32. Rod Johnson said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    Let's compare apples to oranges, and not confuse adjectival constructions like was pissed (off) with true passives like freaked (out). You can use the un- test to distinguish them (see Dorothy Siegel's "Non-sources of Unpassives").

    1a John was pissed (off)1b John remained un-pissed (off)

    2a John freaked (out)2b *John un-freaked (out)

    3a John was freaked (out)3b John remained un-freaked (out)

    1 really is best compared to 3, not 2. Doesn't change the data above, just pointing out that care needs to be taken to get the grammatical context right.

    There are some differences between the two verbs though, diathesis-wise:

    4a *John pissed (*off)4b John freaked (out)

    I think it's unlikely that there's much of a general pattern here, just some minor lexical differences.

  33. Rod Johnson said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    (argh, preview treats BR tags differently than the actual posting. Please mentally insert line breaks there.)

  34. Yosemite Semite said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

    A reporter at the local public broadcasting station in Seattle (KUOW) interviewed a county councilman on 10/16 about some details of the plan for public financing of an arena being built to lure a professional basketball team back to Seattle. The station's transcript of the interview reads, in part, as follows:

    When asked why public bonds were needed for the plan, McDermott said public involvement lowers the borrowing cost. “We can finance over a longer period of time, and those factors make it much easier to pencil out, and successful for the private investor. It wouldn’t otherwise be profitable and therefore it wouldn’t happen,” he said.

  35. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 18, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    Hate to beat a dead 'particle' (or horse), but the phrase "peace out" dawned on me a bit ago.

    "Peace out" likely came into use during the formative years of the U.S counter-culture revolution, with the rise of the Peace-niks, the student protest movement, and the hippie, turn-on-tune-in-drop-out generation….. The Flower Power era.

    The online urban Dictionary* has several meanings for "peace out", but the core one appears to be the notion of a parting, heartfelt, goodbye, with an implicit, be-well sentiment, contained within. (They also suggested that it would often be accompanied by a couple of solid pounds on the speakers chest, followed by a flash of the "V"-for-peace sign.)

    It would seem that "peace out", used without its particle, i.e., out, would have pretty much the same meaning, or intention as the expression when retaining the "out".

    An example in a sentence: "I'm outta here, bro. Peace out (or, Peace) my man."

    *I don't know how much credence folks around these parts hold for the online urban Dictionary. I find it entertaining, at least; if not always authoritative.

  36. The Ridger said,

    October 19, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    And, because you always see something as soon as you start thinking about it, here's another pencil out, from the Salt Lake Tribune's endorsement of Obama:

    To claim, as Romney does, that he would offset his tax and spending cuts (except for billions more for the military) by doing away with tax deductions and exemptions is utterly meaningless without identifying which and how many would get the ax. Absent those specifics, his promise of a balanced budget simply does not pencil out.

  37. Lexikaliker - Der Bleistift als Verb said,

    October 20, 2012 @ 3:09 am

    […] Bleistift ist universell einsetzbar, im Englischen seit dem 17. Jahrhundert sogar als Verb, wie "How to make the numbers pencil" im Language Log […]

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