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It's normal in Chinese to say something like:

他大概三四岁左右 (source)
he is probably around 3 or 4 years old

This is called Approximating with sequential numbers on the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

However, 九十 is problematic because 九十 ordinarily means "ninety".

他大概九十岁左右
he is probably around 9 or 10 years old
he is probably around 90 years old

Question: Can 九十 also mean "nine or ten"?

It may simply be that we're not allowed to use 九十 to mean "nine or ten" (i.e., it's an exception), or perhaps "nine or ten" vs. "ninety" is usually inferrable from context.

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    I think when it comes to speaking, it might be. You have to identify from the subtle difference from people speaking. In terms of writing, it has to be 九、十岁左右 to mean nine or ten years old, so there's no ambiguity. – sylvia Dec 9 '19 at 4:27
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    A high school 语文老师 may scold you for 三四岁左右, though. Because it's a 病句. – Toosky Hierot Dec 9 '19 at 4:31
  • @sylvia 九,十岁左右 is stilted in both speaking and writing. People might say 十岁左右,不到十岁,九岁多,etc. – dan Dec 9 '19 at 5:25
  • @TooskyHierot nothing wrong with 他大概三四岁左右, which is quite natural in speech. – dan Dec 9 '19 at 5:31
  • 九,十岁左右 in writing, while 九 (pause a second) 十岁左右. Not a good practice as it is still ambiguous. 九至十岁would make things clear – Alex Dec 9 '19 at 22:35
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No, since 九十 already means exactly 'ninety', it cannot be use as an approximate figure for 'nine or ten'

'nine or ten years old' has to be written as "九至十岁"

You can say 十一二 (11 or t2) , 十三四 (13 or 14) or even 十五六七 (15 to 17) but not 九十 (9 or 10)

  • 九至十 is between 9 and 10 years old, "九或十" is more correct way to express it. Let's say this with "三四", it would refer to "3 or 4", since "三十四" means "34". But when you talk about "九十" or "十九" it would be "90" or "19" since "十" confused the meaning. – Weijing Jay Lin Dec 9 '19 at 23:47
  • @Weijing Jay "Between 9 and 10" is "either 9 or ten"(or in between). It is true that the literal translation of "9 or 10" is "九或十" (exactly 9 or exactly 10). But colloquially, saying "九至十岁" is the common standard. When we say "he is nine or ten years old" we don't actually mean he is exactly 9 or exactly 10, we actually mean he is between 9 to 10 years old. (九至十岁) – Tang Ho Dec 10 '19 at 0:49
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In this case we usually say 十来岁

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you need correct punctuation here.

the correct writing of 他大概三四岁左右 is 他大概三、四岁左右。

for the meaning of "he is probably around 9 or 10 years old", you have to add "、" as "他大概九、十岁左右。" and when you speak it out, you need a short pause between 九 and 十, otherwise it is interpreted as "he is probably around 90 years old".

  • There isn't any pause between 三 and 四 in speech practically, which is the whole point of idiomatic. – dan Dec 9 '19 at 23:20
  • yes, practically, for any two numbers that won't cause confusion when put together. A pause is normally added in both writing and speaking in case like “九十” vs ”九、十“ to avoid ambiguity. – yy502 Dec 10 '19 at 1:03
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Most probably you already know 七七八八 does not mean seven or eight or seven to eight?

How about “不三不四”

And 八十有三?

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Of course you can, but it is up to the speaker/writer to clear the ambiguity. It's not good usage, but commonly seen nonetheless. With sufficient context, it shouldn't be a problem.

Nowadays, people tend to simply use numbers (123) rather than characters 一二三, especially when texting. I hope you can tell the difference between

这个小孩大概78岁 (Of course good practice would be to put a space in between)

这个老人大概78岁

And I'm sure you understand 他大概910岁 :)

  • Sorry, but 这个小孩大概78岁 is not a good practice. It has to be 这个小孩大概七八岁. We shouldn't recommend that to second language learners. – dan Dec 12 '19 at 0:09
  • @dan, I made it clear that it's not good practice, but it's common usage. Language is not just what you write or say, you also have to understand what others wrote or said. Same as the English structure 'Everyone has not arrived' -- not good practice, but a foreigner has to know its existence. – jf328 Dec 12 '19 at 1:07
  • I doubt if it's common. "Everyone has not arrived" doesn't engaged any confusions, but 大概78岁 does. I accept 大概7岁 for 大概七岁, but not 大概78岁 for 大概七八岁. I personally have never seen one wrote 他34岁 to mean 他三四岁. – dan Dec 12 '19 at 1:24

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