14 posts categorized "Numbers and metrication"

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.

April 22, 2010

Feel Like a Number? Part 3. The Earth Day Edition


by Anne Breitenbach

Our Earth Day post continues our look at exceptions to the basic rule, outlined in 4.31, that numbers below 10 are set as words rather than numerals. We’ve looked at Parts a–c previously. Let’s continue with Parts d–e. These are clear enough that it’s hard to find much of a toehold for ambiguity.

Before looking at the rules, though, there's one change from earlier editions of the Publication Manual that we should note. The rule that specific numbers of subjects or participants in an experiment are set as figures has been dropped.  Thus,

The four participants each planted one tree for every year he or she had been alive.

 It is appropriate to set as figures

d. numbers that represent statistical or mathematical functions, fractional or decimal quantities, percentages, ratios, and percentiles and quartiles.

So examples (from http://www.planetpals.com/fastfacts.html) include the following:

It takes 9 times more energy to make new cans than to use recycled cans.

Only 6% of household waste can’t be recycled.

About .33 of all water use is for flushing toilets.

NB: There is one exception that is relevant to the percentage portion of the rule. Rule 4.32 b states that one should use words to express common fractions; thus,

Earth is two-thirds water, but all the fresh water streams represent 100th of 1%.

e. numbers that represent time, dates, ages, scores and points on a scale, exact sums of money, and numerals as numerals

Examples (from http://www.earthday.org/) include the following:

Join the climate rally at 11:00 a.m. on the National Mall.

The official observation will last for 8 hr.

  . . . 6- and 7-year-olds from San Antonio, TX will have a trash-free day.

NB: Use words for approximations of numbers of days, months, and years. So if the time range isn’t precise, the example would be

The official observation will last for about eight hours.

Our series on numbers continues next week.

April 20, 2010

Feel Like a Number? Part 2. Using Numerals for Quantities Below 10


by Anne Breitenbach 

When do we format a number below 10 as a numeral? In most cases, it’s when the value itself is the focus of the construction, that is, you are pointing your reader to a specific quantity measurement. Rule 4.31 breaks that down into a number of parts. We looked at Parts a and b in the last post. Here we look at Part c:  

c. numbers that immediately precede a unit of measurement

a 5-mg dose

with 10.54 cm of

On the face of it, that seems clear enough to require little by way of exegesis.  And, in truth, in very few cases should this rule provide a challenge.  Yet even this rule can (very occasionally) cause moments of head scratching when one struggles with the issue, what is a unit of measurement?

Consider the following (and feel free to sing along): “eight bottles of beer on the wall, eight bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around . . . .”  Is a bottle of beer a “unit of measurement” per the meaning of the rule?  (Yes, something similar to this has actually come up in academic articles.)  “Bottle” is an entry in A Dictionary of Units of Measurement, in which it is defined as “a unit of volume . . . . that varies with the nature of the contents.”  In context, it seems clear that the meaning does focus on the “bottle” as a unit of measurement.  So per the rule, “8 bottles” would be appropriate.

Does that mean that if you haven’t thought of a descending number of bottles of beer as units of measurement you’re incorrect? If you reason that a unit of measurement that varies by content and by context is hard to take seriously as a measurement, well, it’s a reasonable position.  To reiterate a point we’ve made a number of times on the blog (e.g., The Flexibility of APA Style), although the stylistic guidelines in the Publication Manual are meant to ensure consistency, they are not meant to replace your own reasoned judgment. 

For more examples of units of measurement (though by no means an exhaustive list!), please refer to the Publication Manual, Table 4.4 and the units of time that follow (p. 109).

More on Numbers to follow.

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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