September 19, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: numbers and numerals starting a sentence

Posted in number/numeral, number/numeral beginning a sentence, numbers and numerals at 8:26 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Numbers and numerals

A reader writes:

I’ve been taught that you should never start a sentence in a scientific publication with a number. For example, do not say, “82.7% of survey respondents said….”

Is this still true? Why?

 I wrote back :

It is still true. When a number starts a sentence it has to be spelled out, and eighty two point seven percent is pretty unwieldy. You can always rewrite the sentence so that the number is in the middle—”Of survey respondents, 82.7% said…”

My reader wrote back:

Do you know why it is verboten? Is it a type setting issue or is it harder for readers in some way?

I looked, I really did, and can’t find a reason. It’s really a matter of style. But every style book I looked at shared this convention. I suspect that the reason has to do with formality. It looks more formal to start a sentence with words instead of numbers, and when I say numbers here, I really mean numerals, because whether spelled out or written with symbols, what you have is still a number. Let me explain.

A number is an abstract construct, an idea. When you think of the number four, you have an idea of what four means. It can be represented in many ways: four, 4, ****, IV, etc. When we use the  Arabic symbol to represent the number, 4, we are using a numeral.

Lots of people use the words interchangeably, especially informally as in the email above, but it’s worth having an understanding of the distinction.

So back to the reader’s question. I’m not sure why it is still verboten, but it is. Garner says that “it is stylistically poor to start a sentence—or a paragraph—with a numeral.” And it seems that everyone agrees. I thought if anyone would support the use of numerals at the beginning of the sentence, it would be the AMA Manual of Style, because the editors of that tome eschew written words representing numbers in almost every case, but they make an exception for the beginning of sentences. From the manual:

“In scientific writing, numerals are used to express numbers in most circumstances. Exceptions are the following:

    • Numbers that begin a sentence, title, subtitle, or heading.
    • Common fractions
    • Accepted usage such as idiomatic expressions and numbers used as pronouns
    • Other uses of “one” in running text…”

There are a couple of other exceptions, but you get the point. So, if even AMA says no, we’re pretty much stuck with it. Ours not to reason why, ours but to do—and not be edited.

1 Comment »

  1. Frankie said,

    The same also applies to abbreviated scientific names (e.g. E. coli) and other abbreviations. I suspect that the convention came about as a way of avoiding any confusion caused by the proximity of two or more full stops.


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