Tally Marks

Tally Marks


Tally marks are a numerical system used for to make counting easier. As the name suggests, it is a system that helps keep “tally” of things by number. Tally marks are commonly used for counting scores, points, number of people or, as per the cliché, days you’ve spent in prison.

Tally marks differ from country to country, as each culture has developed their own systems. Even if you know what tally marks look like in your own country, you may not know what they look like away from home.

The tally cluster is a way of arranging tallies into intervals of 5 for ease of counting. To make a tally cluster in most parts of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, you mark up to four vertical strokes before using a diagonal stroke to mark the fifth one.

In France, Spain, South America, and some parts of Africa, they also use a tally cluster based on intervals of five. However, instead of four vertical lines and a fifth diagonal or horizontal one, they create a square with a diagonal through it (from upper right to bottom left). Order matters, so you must start with a singular vertical line, a horizontal line going right to make the top the box, then a downward line for the right-hand side, a fourth line to complete the square, and a fifth line that diagonals across it.

Chinese tally marks are used in day-to-day life, just like their Western counterparts. They are widely used not only in China, but in other parts of Asia that use Chinese characters in their alphabet. Like their Western equivalents, they also use a cluster of five strokes. However, Chinese tally marks add up to make the shape of the  Chinese character 正 (pronounced zhèng) … which means “correct” or “true/right”.

While not fully verified, the most agreed upon origin of the Chinese tally mark dates back to the end of the Qing Dynasty, and a way that a theatre in Shanghai kept track of and then seated groups-of-five patrons.

Another curious thing about the Western version of tally marks relates to that fifth stroke and how it is drawn, diagonally or horizontally and starting from where. Thanks to redditer r/Damnthatsinteresting we can point you to a Google Form wherein you can cast your vote. The results, at the time of writing, are on the facing page, and for what it’s worth we’re in the third-most-popular “diagonally from bottom left” camp. You?




1. Tally Marks on a chalkboard. Credit: homegets.com via David Stewart.
2. Hanakapiai Beach warning in Hawaii. The tally shown is 82.
3. Mean looking prison
4. Bugs Bunny in Jail
5. Tally marking systems from around the world
6. Chinese tally mark 正 for five
7. Google tally mark form. Complete it HERE.
8. Results as at 9 July 2024


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