Crunching the numbers

Should you spell out numbers, or present them as Arabics (numerals)? Could you cheekily mix the systems without anyone noticing?

The problem with number style is its flexibility. For example, there’s nothing wrong with any of the three examples below. Each is internally consistent in its treatment of categories — i.e., age, linear measure and mathematical units. And that, basically, is the key: whatever you do, you absolutely must be consistent.

At the age of eight I stood 4 feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown 3 inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run 2 miles.

At the age of 8 I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By 9, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

At the age of eight I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

The publishers I work with tend to focus on a few core rules, which can be treated with latitude so long as consistency is applied. These rules are good for most uses besides books. Here are some of the basics and their variations.

 

Single/double digits, large round numbers

In non-fiction, it’s common to spell out numerals from zero to nine, then switch to Arabics for double digits upwards. Arabics are, quite obviously, suited to scientific or technical text. In fiction or more anecdotal non-fiction, such as a life story or memoir, you might prefer to spell out numbers (at least up to ninety-nine), because it fosters warmth and fluency. Usually, too, it’s appropriate to spell out large round numbers.

1) The hut still lay twelve miles away, and rain began to fall. We pressed on.
2) And so I learnt at forty-nine that my knees would not last forever.
3) Our laboratory test subset fell within the sample range of 2.4–5.0 mg.
4) Naked mole-rats typically weigh 30–35 g.
5) There must have been a thousand people at the party.
6) On our mole-rat field trip, undergraduates outnumbered fellows three to one.

Some notes on the above:
In 2 (and I’ve covered this before, I know), avoid writing ‘from 30–35 g’. Use either ‘30–35 g’ or ‘from 30 to 35 g’. The same goes for ‘between . . . and’.
In 3, the second figure includes the decimal place because ‘2.4–5’ would have been ambiguous.
In 6, you could equally have ‘. . . outnumbered fellows 3:1’.

Can you mix single and double digits? The Chicago Manual of Style says no. Rather:

  • On the research trip our party ranged in age from 9 to 16.

If you choose to override this with the zero-to-nine rule — ‘from nine to 16’ — make sure you’re consistent throughout your text.

 

Direct speech

Numbers in direct speech are commonly spelt out, although there are acceptable exceptions (for, e.g., years, fractions, and other complicated situations).

  • ‘I’ve been admiring your new layering technique for at least fourteen minutes,’ she murmured.
  • ‘We’ve used these Kyoto thinning scissors since 1977,’ I said proudly.
  • ‘Crikey, this mole-rat weighs 43.2 grams,’ remarked Jenkinson.
  • ‘My dog weighs sixty kilos, but he’s a big softie.’

 

Numbers at the start of sentences

Avoid beginning a sentence with Arabic numerals. Rearrange the sentence to avoid spelling out huge or clunky numbers — although spelling out a massive number can be effective in making a point.

  • Thirty-nine years ago, I could run up this staircase in under one minute.
  • Two thousand and thirty mole-rats live in the area. [This is clunky.]
  • The area is home to 2030 mole-rats. [This is better.]
  • Two hundred and fifty thousand citizens voted for this idiot.

 

Time . . .

As with other numbering issues, there’s flexibility in how you present times of the day, depending on context, tone and style, and whether you’re of a military persuasion.

  • We usually broke for tea around four o’clock, then took a stroll on the cliffs.
  • Tea will be served punctually at 4 p.m. Dinner is at 7 p.m. Do not be late.
  • Tea is at 1600 hours, final briefing at 1630.
  • At 7.10 p.m. I texted ‘Where are you?’ There was no reply. I sent a second text at 7.12, and a third at 7.21. Finally, at 10.03 p.m. came his terse reply: ‘With Jill.’

Note that in US English, punctual times use a colon in place of a full stop.

 

. . . and date

You see all sorts of date styles on homemade handbills and posters outside the village hall, but dates can be boiled down to two systems: British English and US English.

British English

  • The ceremony will take place on 5 September.
  • It will take place on 5 September 2020.
  • It will take place on Saturday, 5 September 2020.

American English

  • The election is scheduled for November 3.
  • It will take place on November 3, 2020.
  • It will take place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

As ever, there is the option of a more lyrical style. With special occasions that are known by the date on which they occur, capitals are appropriate.

  • We always celebrate the Fourth of July.
  • My birthday, on the third of July, is generally forgotten.
  • At least I’m invited to their Cinco de Mayo fiesta.
  • We’ll be shutting our dogs in as usual on the fifth of November.

Ideally, avoid mish-mashes like ‘the village fete will be on the 4th November’ — but, to be honest, no one’s likely to object.

 

Ordinals

Leading on smoothly from that topic, we normally spell out ordinals. For instance:

  • Embarrassingly, my parents finished seventh in the egg-and-spoon race.
  • Her twenty-first was a lavish event, with elephants and pink champagne.
  • ‘Blues, twentieth-century blues / They’re getting me down . . .’

 

A topic I’m dodging for now is the presentation of page number ranges. Too big! Another time.

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