At sixes and sevens about nine and 10

A colleague raised a common issue: she had chosen to use Canadian Press style for a website with health information, and it left her with stuff such as “at ages six to nine, you will use 10–20% more.” What to do about those mixed and inconsistent numbers when they show up together like that?

I’ll tell you what: Don’t follow Canadian Press style. Or any other style like it, when it comes to numbers.

In many ways, CP style is appropriate only for newspapers. For instance, usages such as “$9-million” are not standard English but have a justification in the narrow columns of a newspaper. CP style rules for spelling out numbers, however, are not appropriate for newspapers. Nor for most other nonfiction, in fact.

Long ago, when teaching test prep for the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and SAT, I realized that numerals communicate more directly, immediately, and effectively to the reader, stay better in the mind, and leap off the page much more readily. In any work that is being referred to for facts, numerals are more effective for all magnitudes, not just for 10 and higher. And in a context that is as space-sensitive as a newspaper, the only reasons for preferring spelled-out numbers are prissiness and dogged traditionalism. That’s it. Adhering to their rules produces not only the example above but even worse things, rubbish such as “He is facing an eight- to 20-year sentence” and “seven in 10 people.” There is nothing about this is that is helpful to the reader; it is distracting and impedes comprehension and retention.

And how about starting sentences with numerals? The standard argument is that the reader somehow won’t know you’re starting a sentence. Why? Numerals stand out as much as capital letters. There’s a space after the period – a suitably large one in a modern proportional font, too – so no one will mistake it for a decimal.

Look, do you really prefer this:

Nineteen-eighty-four was a bad year. Eight out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from six to 20 years.

to this:

1984 was a bad year. 7 out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Really. Which leaps off the page and into your brain more readily? Which sticks in your mind better? Quick, tell me (try it without looking first, then just at a glance): How many out of 10 members in the second example? And in the first? And what was the jail time range in the first? And in the second?

If you’re communicating factual information where the numbers matter, use numerals. Don’t worry, people will still remember how to spell them even if you don’t spell them out. You are not contributing to the decline of literacy. You are facilitating the communication of information.

Will some readers complain if you don’t spell out the low numbers? Yes – the kind of reader who is more interested in making sure that everyone follows their personal set of rules than in the actual communication being effected. These are not readers to take any account of; almost nobody even likes them. Most readers just want the facts.

The only numeral that is problematic, in fact, is 1, and that’s because it looks like l and I, especially in some type faces. For my own house style at the company where I work, I have set the rule to be that we use numerals for all numbers in all contexts except where 1 appears by itself, in which case we spell it out for clarity. We make occasional exceptions with idiomatic phrases, where the numeral would look odd (no need to be at 6s and 7s about that). Otherwise, it’s all numerals, and that makes it much more effective and usable.

You will note I said “most other nonfiction.” For works that are more narrative in style, such as many biographies and most fiction, numerals may stick out quite a bit in the flow, since – as noted – they leap off the page and communicate much more quickly. In a story they can be like sudden spurts of water in a steady stream (or like your tap after the water’s been off and air has gotten into the line). So I don’t take issue with the literary habit of spelling out up to ninety-nine and, in dialogue, even higher. But in informational material – such as health data – I strongly advocate all numerals all the time.

And the Canadian Press ought to smarten up and do so as well. Until they do, though, effective editors will do better to ignore their prescriptions. After all, the name of the game is effective communication, not “Who’s following the holy writ?”

2 responses to “At sixes and sevens about nine and 10

  1. This approach makes a lot of sense. But some editors argue about rules as ends in themselves, rather than as means to achieve readability, clarity, and consistency. They are not ends. When I was a young lawyer, a senior partner changed some aspect of a correctly formatted block quote in a brief we were writing. When I asked why, he said, “Because it looks better.”

  2. I would certainly prefer the latter sentence (the tail-end one, so to speak), because it entails lighter sentencing (that is, less jail time).

    Also, I would prefer to be the 8th club member, for whom the latter sentence would entail no sentence at all. In fact, he would not be caught up in the prosecution of the “seven to ten” (nor its preposition, nor the punctuation “7-10”.)

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