Author Topic: Your handling of numbers and time reflects the clarity of your thinking  (Read 5555 times)

Joe Carillo

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Some people are very finicky with the grammar and the overall look and styling of their English expositions, but they are often very inconsistent and messy in handling their numbers and timekeeping. Rarely do they have a firm system for when numbers should be stated in figures or when they should be spelled out in words, so they end up writing memos, letters, or reports that are often too unsightly and unpleasant to read.

How people handle numbers and time in their prose is, of course, a clear reflection of their mental discipline and the clarity of their thinking. This is why self-respecting companies and institutions adopt a writing stylebook and require everybody in the organization to adhere to its prescriptions. Still, it takes a lot of doing to get everybody to follow that stylebook correctly and religiously, as evidenced by the spotty handling of numbers and time by the scores of writers—even professional journalists and corporate communicators—that I have edited over the years.

That situation was what prompted me to write the essay below, “The Grammar of Numbers and Time,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. I am posting it in the Forum to help people who don’t have or aren’t obliged to follow any stylebook yet to be more systematic in dealing with numbers and time in their written work.

The grammar of numbers and time

A math wizard from Bangalore, India by the name of Shakantula Devi made it to the Guinness Book of Records in 1980 when she mentally multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. This was the arithmetic operation she performed: 7, 686, 369, 774, 870  x  2, 465, 099, 745, 779 = 18, 947, 668, 177, 995, 426, 773, 730. Since then, Ms. Devi had been routinely beating sophisticated computers right in their own turf. In one such contest, she took only 50 seconds to get the 23rd root of a 21-digit number, while the computer took more than a minute to perform the same job.

              IMAGE CREDIT: 123RF.COM

My point in writing about Ms. Devi’s astounding arithmetic powers is not really to goad lesser mortals to try to emulate her feat, nor to shame the arithmetic-challenged among us to improve their basic computing skills, but simply to encourage people to accord more respect to numbers in their English prose. Take note, for instance, that I did not write the year “1980” in the first paragraph as “The Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eighty” (as some lawyers are still wont to do even now); that I did not write “13-digit” as “thirteen-digit”; that I did not write “28 seconds” as “twenty-eight seconds”; and that I did not write “23rd” as “twenty-third.” The grammar of numbers and time is not a science—too many national and cultural variations militate against a universal numbers-writing style—but we certainly can minimize unsightly crimes of prose innumeracy by agreeing on a basic numbers stylebook.

Let us begin with two generally accepted rules: (1) numbers from 1 to 10 should be written as words when used in a sentence: “The customer ordered eight red shirts and five blue ones, but returned three browns”; and (2) numbers from 11 upwards in a sentence should be written in figures: “The professor discovered to her dismay that 12 of her pupils were absent, and that 546 of the entire student population did not make it to their classes either.” And if perchance the sentence has numbers ranging from 1 to any number higher than 10, the two rules above still hold even if it means mixing figures and spelled-out numbers: “We counted a total of 800 words in her essay and found ten misspelled words and 17 wrong word choices.”

There are just two notable exceptions to these rules. First, any number that starts a sentence should be written in words: “Thirteen is considered an unlucky number by some people.” “Four hundred eighty-two years ago, a Portuguese explorer stumbled on a group of islands on the Pacific and named it the Archipelago of St. Lazarus.” Second, when numbers are used to list a series of items within a sentence, all such numbers should be written as figures (or digits) even for numbers below 11: “These are the 14 reasons why I won’t live in your city: (1) the traffic is horrible, (2) the overcrowding is simply too much, (3) the cost of living is too high, and… (14) it gets so cold there in winter.”

Many people, of course, after writing out a number in words, indiscriminately repeat them in figures enclosed in parenthesis, as in: “I would like to discuss with you today three (3) aspects of the problem being encountered by four (4) of our regional offices.” Is this correct usage? Definitely not; this kind of absurd overemphasis literally insults the reader. This should be strictly confined to commercial or legal writing, as in writing checks or in preparing affidavits to make sure that nobody can easily monkey around with the numbers: “Pay to Cash: Five Thousand Two Hundred Sixty Pesos Only (PhP5,260.00)” “…for and in consideration of the delivery of Eight Hundred Sixty-Seven (867) pieces of widgets.”

Marking time gives us more latitude in using numbers. We can write, say, “9:00 A.M. (or a.m.)” or “nine o’clock in the morning” depending on the accuracy we want to convey. But most everybody on the planet is agreed that exact dates should be written in numbers, as in “August 24, 1946.”

We have to take up just three more important rules about writing numbers before we close: (1) We should use figures and not spell out numbers immediately before a unit of measure: “a 10-minute wait,” “a 3-3/4 cm. length of tape,” “16 Megahertz on the FM band”; (2) We should use figures and not spell out numbers that represent statistical or mathematical functions or formulas: “divided by 6,” multiplied by 9,” “a ratio of 50:1,” “8% bigger”; and (3) We should use figures and not spell out numbers that represent time, ages, money, sizes, scores, and points on a scale: “at 12 midnight,” “4 years old,” “$9,” “5 cm. x 12 cm.,” “73:69,” and “Intensity 5 on the Richter Scale.”

We use numbers all the time in our lives, so it pays to do our numbers right. (November 12, 2003)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 12, 2003 issue © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. This essay later became Chapter 129 of the book Give Your English the Winning Edge ©2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 18, 2019, 08:39:58 PM by Joe Carillo »