Numbers in Quotes

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I admire my old boss for many reasons--his wit, his humility (despite a mass of talent, clear thinking, and recognition within an industry that's prone to self-aggrandizement), and his way of beginning every tirade with the phrase, "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting..."--but chief among them was (well, is) his deep thinking on and succinct rationalization of grammatical points.

One of the best arguments he made was for writing out numbers in quotations.

This is something only a handful of sober-headed grammarians consider, because it's not covered in Strunk and White (well, maybe it is, I haven't read that crap in years; this is far superior).

Anyway, I favor writing out numbers in quotes, because, as my old boss used to say:

Old Boss [Going over some proofs]: Okay, there's a numeric in this quote; everyone uses numerics in quotes.

My Own Ignorant Self: Eh?

OB: You should always write out numbers in quotes; no one ever says, "I couldn't swing one zero zero dead cats without hitting a pheasant in South Dakota."

MOIS: That's a lot of dead cats?

OB: There's a lot of swinging.

That's a good point: For single digits, numerics work fine, but when you get to anything higher, that breaks down. Speech is usually taken as is, which means that everything said should be literally written. Hence, you should write, "One hundred" (or even "A hundred," but we'll get to that in a moment) instead of "100," which translates to "One zero zero."

Got it?

Okay, so it's fine to advocate writing out numbers, but what about really tough numbers, like, oh, say, "167" (and I write this because numbers in writing should use numerics when they're above nine [and we'll get to that in another moment])?

One sixty-seven should be written, officially, as I just wrote it (and the reason I did so was because, in writing, numbers should be spelled out if they begin a sentence [they appear
unsightly {and, to a larger extent, can lead to confusion}]), but it can get more confusing the higher up we go. For example, it'd be tempting to write a number complex as eighty-one billion, seven-hundred sixty-two million, four-hundred twenty-six thousand, seven-hundred eighteen as 81,762,426,718, and that's an argument I have sympathy for (seeing as how I just spent 20 minutes trying to wade through the proper terms for thousands); in fact, I'd go with numerics when it gets that high, because at that point consistency can lead to confusion, and the purpose of consistency is to alleviate confusion. It's kind of like the abortion issue of grammar: at what point is it not right?

I'd say that for now (November 2010) that'd be some place beyond the millions, because any number more complex than that would be confusing, and, in any writing, the best way to write is whatever gets your point across.

But most folks don't speak in numbers complex as 81,762,426,718, so if you have the luxury of jotting down only a few hundreds (which is why, in basic speech, recording what someone says, precisely, translates to writing, "A hundred" [because that's how everyone says it]), that' how you should write it.