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April 27, 2010

Feel Like a Number? Part 4. Numbers Expressed in Words

Anne by Anne Breitenbach

Rule 4.32 says to use words to express any number that begins a sentence, title, or text heading. Why? It follows the convention that though numerals are generally easier to read, words are typically used in more formal writing. Consider, for example, the difference between “Four score and seven years ago” and “87 years ago.” True, sometimes the rule results in an odd-looking sentence (“Two thousand eighty-seven bonobos  . . .”). Under those circumstances, the best solution is to reword the sentence to avoid the problem.

 In contrast to the general rule that numerals are used to express mathematical functions, words are also used to express common fractions. That convention is followed across many styles (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed.). Again, the genesis of the rule lies in large part in appearance. Fractions are problematic to typeset, and they look odd on the printed page.
The third cited situation in which numbers are expressed as words is for instances of “universally accepted usage.” The Publication Manual gives two examples, the Twelve Apostles and the Five Pillars of Islam. This seems the only rule of the three that presents any real challenge, as “universal acceptance” is more easily promised than delivered. Take as an example our own confidently offered Twelve Apostles. Though indisputably, the great preponderance of scholarly references do refer to the Twelve Apostles rather than the 12 Apostles, a Google Scholar search restricted to humanities sources still turns up nearly 1,000 instances of the latter format. And the apostate results on even the first page contain reputable sources (e.g., Biblical Theology Bulletin, The Harvard Theological Review) that would make a literalist question the universality of the usage. Alas, there is no Concordance for life or for accepted phrases; so once again, you are left to rely on what appears to be accepted  on the basis of the totality of the evidence at your disposal and your own reasoned judgment.
We’ll continue our look at when to use words and when to use figures for numbers in our next post.


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