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Tally Marks

Tally marks are the quickest way of keeping track of a group of five. One vertical line is made for each of the first four numbers; the fifth number is denoted by a diagonal line drawn across the previous four (i.e., from the top of the first line to the bottom of the fourth line). The diagonal fifth line cancels out the other four vertical lines making the entire set represent five.

Tally marks are also known as hash marks and can be defined in the unary numeral system. (A unary operation in a mathematical system is one element used to yield a single result, in this case a vertical line.) These marks are most useful in counting or tallying ongoing results, such as the score in a game or sport, as no intermediate results need to be erased or discarded. They also make it simple to add up the results by simply counting by 5’s. Here is an illustration of what I mean.

  • The value 1 is represented by | tally marks.
  • The value 2 is represented by | | tally marks.
  • The value 3 is represented by | | | tally marks.
  • The value 4 is denoted by |||| tally marks.
  • The value five is not denoted by | | | | | tally marks. For the number 5, draw four vertical lines (||||) with a diagonal (\) line through them.
I have seen many interesting ways to teach tally marks to younger children. Many teachers will use Popsicle sticks so that the students have a concrete hands-on way of making tally marks. Some have even tried pretzel sticks although there is a good chance some will disappear during the lesson. 

But have you ever seen these kind of tally marks?

My husband, who teaches science, received this data collection paper from a student. The students were tossing coins marked TT, Tt, and tt to determine different genetic traits and tallying the results. The ones seen above are Japanese tally marks. (The student lived in Japan.) I was fascinated about how they were made so I asked him to have this student show me the sequence of how to draw the marks.

I'm not sure what they mean or why they are made this way, but if you look at the 2nd mark you will notice that it looks like a "T" for two. The fourth mark sort of looks like an "F" for four, but so does the third one. As you can see, each complete character uses 5 strokes; so, a series of would each represent 5, just like the English ones. However, to be honest, I am at a total lost to what this really means; so, I resorted to the internet. Here is what I learned. 

Instead of lines, a certain Kanji character is used. In Japan, this mark reminds people of a sign for “masu” which was originally a square wooden box used to measure rice in Japan during the feudal period. Here is what the tally marks would look like if we compared the two systems.

The successive strokes of () are used in China, Japan and Korea to designate tallies in votes, scores, points, sushi orders, and the like, much as is used in Europe, Africa, Australia and North America. Tallies beyond five are written like this  with a line drawn underneath each group of five, followed by the remainder. For example, a tally of twelve is written as 正正丅. 

So the next time your visit Japan or go to a Japenese restaurant to order Sushi, look for the tally marks as the waiter takes your order.

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