June 25, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: numbers and numerals, digits

Posted in numbers and numerals at 6:39 am by dlseltzer

I’ve been promising to write about numbers and numerals for a couple of weeks now, so here goes.

A reader writes:

I feel like this is a stupid question, but I continue to be perplexed by it, so here goes:

I do English editing on research manuscripts before they are submitted to a journal. I work for an agency, not a journal, where I am a first editor, and a second editor (Quality Assurance, I assume) edits my work. My question concerns when to use words vs. numerals. Everything I have learned says that unless it is a unit of time (e.g., day, h, min, s) or measurement (e.g., kg, ml, cm), quantities less than 10 are expressed as words. However, a second editor might change ‘Of the 12 patients, six improved, four remained stable, and two deteriorated following the administration of drug X.’ to ‘Of the 12 patients, 6 improved, 4 remained stable, and 2 deteriorated following the administration of drug X.’

There are several second editors and this change is not made consistently; moreover, perhaps because we work across so many journals, the company does not have a style guide.

Is there a rule that I am unaware of, such as always use numerals in the Methods and Results sections? I suspect I will continue to be corrected no matter what I do, but I’d just like know that I’m doing it correctly🙂

Thanks for your help.

I replied with this:

No, this is not a stupid question at all. The reason it is tough is that there are no rules for this, only styles. Most style guides follow the style that you were taught. However, there are two major exceptions: The Chicago manual suggests writing out all numbers up to 100 unless you’re writing something scientific and technical, and the American Medical Association (AMA) suggests always using numerals with the only exception being when the number is the first word of the sentence, and then it is spelled out. The AMA guide covers almost all scientific and medical writing, and I suspect that is what your other editor is using, too. I notice the you are an editor for medical writers [address withheld], so, for your work, you should use AMA style, but for everything else, you are correct. I hope this helps or at least explains things.

And all of that is true, but it is not the whole story. Let me quickly explain the difference between a number and a numeral. A number is really an abstract concept, an idea. A numeral is what we use to express the idea. It’s not as complicated as it seems. Just as the word, ‘bird,’ is not actually the two-winged flying creature, itself, but it’s the word we use to express the idea of a two-winged flying creature. We use words everyday to express abstract concepts, and we use numerals to express the idea of numbers. We use the words interchangeably all the time, and we intuitively understand what we are talking about. I’m not here to tell you to not use the term, number—I’m just saying it is not precise. One time where we always use the term ‘correctly,’ is when we are talking about Roman Numerals. Roman Numerals express the concept of Roman numbers. Does that make sense?

What else do we need to know about numbers and numerals? A mathematician will tell you that there’s lots, but for our purposes, that’s about it. It wouldn’t hurt to mention a digit. A digit is a single symbol which is used to write numerals. For example, the numeral 891 is composed of three digits: 8, 9, and 1. That’s pretty much it.

1 Comment »

  1. Danny said,

    In my opinion, Roman numerals express the concept of numbers.

    “Seven,” “7,” and “VII” are ways to express the same idea.


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