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April 15, 2010

Feel Like a Number? A Tax Day Tribute


by Anne Breitenbach

If April isn’t the cruelest month, it’s got to at least be in the running for those of us who dread our national accounting deadline of April 15th. But today does seem an appropriate day to begin to look at the rules governing numbers in APA Style. The basic rule with numbers is simplicity itself: Use numerals to express numbers 10 and above and words to express numbers below 10. As with so many things, the devil is in the details. This rule is subject to a number of exceptions. Most of them make sense intuitively, and all have a sound logical basis if considered individually. Let’s take a look at those rules in a few posts.

Let me start by noting one change between the 5th and 6th editions of the Publication Manual. Rule 3.42(b) in the 5th edition stated that “all numbers below 10 that are grouped for comparison with number 10 and above” are set as figures. The reason was to compare like with like, but in practice, it sometimes led to odd results. The writer would scan each paragraph looking for numbers 10 and above, and there are some very long paragraphs in research papers! In addition, formatting could change from paragraph to paragraph if one part of the argument happened to include numbers above and below 10 and the next didn’t. Therefore, for simplicity and consistency, that rule is no longer applied in the 6th edition.

What exceptions do exist to using words to express numbers below 10? One rule is that numbers in the abstract of a paper are set as figures. A main reason for that is that space is at a premium in the abstract, which frequently is excerpted from the paper and set in a bibliographic record field. Those fields may have a limited number of characters—we’ll call it longer than a tweet but shorter than many authors might prefer if left without limits. But in any case, conciseness is a virtue in an abstract. A second related rule is that figures are used instead of numbers in graphical displays within a paper. Again, a main part of the reasoning is that space is at a premium in a graphic and the numbers are usually there for comparison purposes. Side-by-side figures are easier than side-by-side words to compare.

Next, we’ll look at numbers that are used with measurement or that represent statistical or mathematical functions.





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