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Gerald Lushington Technical Writing / Proofreading Services

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A common sense look at numbers!

Posted by LushingtonTechWriter on April 4, 2013 at 5:20 PM

Everyone, including bloggers, texters, poets, scribblers, teachers and especially technical writers is regularly forced to deal (perhaps haphazardly) with the most common source of writing uncertainty:  numbers.  What do you do if you have 11 14-year-olds coming to your house?  Panic?

Well, according to these flexible, sensible recommendations by Michael at DailyWritingTips.com, you (and anyone you're writing to) will feel much better if you express this as "eleven 14-year-olds", given the imminently sensible recommendation that if you have to write two distinct numbers back-to-back, it is easier to read if you express one of them in numeral form (i.e., "14") and the other ("eleven") as an explicit word.  Beyond avoiding possible formating issues that might convey the mistaken impression that you're entertaining Methusaleh's grandparents (perhaps for their 1114th birthday celebrations) it is just simply easier to read. So which one should you write out explicitly?  It may not matter much from the perspective of readability, but the best answer is to save keystrokes and render as numerals the number that would take longer to type (i.e., 14).

Another rule that I'd never really thought of before, but also seems perfectly natural, is that if you are estimating a big number (e.g., "the United States has around 300 million people"), then you write out the number in word form, but if you feel confident that you know the exact number, then render it in all its numeric glory: 315,614,267! [US Population clock as of end of day, April 4, 2013]  The estimation shortcut is especially useful for your 14-year-old guests, who might otherwise have trouble explaining the zillions and jillions of homework problems that the don't feel like working on.

Where confusion persists, the article acknowledges it:  Americans and Europeans are still at loggerheads regarding the use of commas and periods to differentiate larger numbers and decimals (one group keeps doing it backwards; I won't say which).  And there is no rigid commandment that dictates "Thou shalt inscribe ten as ten, and 12 as 12!"  If you're writing for a discipline (or organization) that wants to make up a rule, then follow it, but otherwise the only truly sensible expectation is that you should be set standards within a document and be consistent.  So, if your teenaged guests bring along a bunch of younger siblings (gee, thanks...) then it's no problem to complain about the ten 8-year-olds.

Anyway, there are a bunch of other good recommendations on there, so do take a look!  Oh, and by my calculations, I think you're going to need about 20 twelve inch pizzas.  Or a jillion.

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