October 2, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Numbers, bring/take

Posted in bring/take, numbers and numerals at 8:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Numbers

A reader writes:

In writing manuscripts we are taught to never start a sentence with a number. For example, “45% of respondents said yes” would be considered wrong. It is often easy to reorder the sentence, but I sometimes feel that I’m writing a more awkward sentence just to avoid starting it with a number. Plus, why?

Do you have any thoughts?

Let me first address the second issue you raise. Looking for a “why” in English is sheer folly and can only lead to melancholy, despair, misery, and finally madness. There is no logical reason for many of the rules of English–there are usages that over time became conventions and slithered into rules. There are rules that were set centuries ago by self-appointed arbiters of English and were never challenged (quite possibly for lack of the ability to print or make multiple copies). And there are rules that just are–for no apparent reason. Why else would you have the rule “i before e except after c”? Why c? Why else would an “i before e ” word be pronounced with the “ee” sound (e.g., seize)? And how does that jibe with the ditty I learned in grade school, “when two vowels go out walking, the first one does the talking, and he will say his name” (obviously learned before the pronoun “he” used in this context was considered sexist)? And for what possible reason was it ruled that we can’t end a sentence with a preposition? You ask “why,”and I can only respond “because.” My recommendation is to accept that answer and not go looking for rational reasons; the search will only lead you into dark and scary places and, in the end, will only bring you heartache and pain.

Now, what was your question again? Oh yeah, numbers.

It is true, you should never begin a sentence with a numeral. As noted in the question above, “45& of respondents said yes” is indeed wrong. The correct sentence would read “Forty-five percent of the respondents said yes.”

[PLEASE NOTE: Compound numbers (numbers that require two words (e.g., forty and eight to create forty-eight) should always be hyphenated.]

Here are the rules:

Always spell out a number if it is the first word of the sentence.

If the number is large and would be awkward to spell out (e.g., eight thousand six hundred forty for 8,640), recast the sentence so the number is not the first word and then you can write the number as a numeral.

A total of 8,640 peanuts were in the bowl.

Numbers less than ten, should be spelled out; for numbers 10 and over, use the numeral.

An exception occurs in relation to percentages, some units of time, and some units of measurement: With percentages, use the numeral even if it is less than 10 (e.g., 6%, 2.5%). This is true UNLESS the percent is the first word of the sentence; in that case, the first word in a sentence rule applies and you should spell out the number.

I was unable to find any definitive reference on when to use the word “percent” or when to use the symbol “%.” I would use the symbol with the numeral (14%) and the word when spelling out the number (seventy three percent).

Tip 2: Bring or Take

The use of “bring” when the correct word is “take” is ubiquitous. And I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to explain the distinct meanings although ostensibly, it should be easy. Basically, you bring something here and you take something there, so bring is used when something is moving towards you or towards the subject of the sentence.

Take is used when something is going or moving away. How many times have you heard or have you said, “I’m going to bring a bottle of wine to the party?” Well, the truth be told, this is incorrect. You can take wine to a party or you can bring some wine home or Paul can bring wine to his house but you can’t bring wine somewhere else. You must take the wine so the correct sentence would be, “I’m going to take a bottle of wine to the party.”

Examples of the correct use of “bring”

Would you bring me a bottle of aspirin?

Mary brought all of her completed assignments to work.

John is going to bring the plans for the building’s fire escapes home.

Example of the correct use of “take”

Would you take a bottle of aspirin to the clinic?

Mary took all of her completed assignments to work.

John is going to take the plans for the building’s fire escapes to my house.

Please note that the sentences, “Mary brought all of her completed assignments to work” and “Mary took all of her completed assignments to work” are both correct This is when it become tricky and harder to explain. To determine the correct use in this example, you must determine the point of view of the narrator. If the narrator is at the workplace to which Mary is bringing the assignments, then “bring” is correct because the assignments are moving to the narrators destination. If the narrator is at home, then “take” is correct because the assignments are moving away from home to the work destination. The best way to determine the point of view (if not readily apparent) is to consider the context in which the statement is being made.

Only one of the following sentences uses “bring” correctly:

When you go to the conference next week, please bring your Departments annual report.

I’m going to bring my favorite cookie recipe to the school auction.

When you come back, would you bring some popcorn and soda?

The soldier brought all of his favorite movies and CDs to Iraq, hoping he would have plenty of time to use them.

Only the third sentence is correct. The popcorn and soda will be moving to the narrator’s location; however, in the other three sentences, something is moving away from the narrator’s location to someplace else.

In summary, “bring” involves moving from a distant place to a nearer place, and “take” involves moving from a nearer place to a more distant place.

And I don’t have to tell you that the past tense of “bring” is “brought,” and there is no place in formal writing for brang or brung.

3 Comments »

  1. adam said,

    Thanks for saying slithered. It is a great word. adam

  2. gina said,

    I have been forwarding WLUT to my mother who enjoys it as much as I do.
    She observed incorrect use of the comma separating subject from predicate in the sentence below and suggested l let you know.

    Numbers less than ten, should be spelled out; for numbers 10 and over, use the numeral.

  3. dlseltzer said,

    And as we know, moms are always right. Mea Culpa. Thanks Gina (and your mother)


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