Saturday, October 27, 2012


I was recently asked what are the rules for writing numbers in formal writing. The question set of a spark of curiosity which flamed into a fire, and the end result is another blog entry. The rules are first…the application follows. 

1.       Any one-word number should be written out. Two-word numbers may be expressed in figures. That is, you should write out eight or thirteen or seventy, but if you choose, you may use the numerals for 36. I, for one, will almost always choose to write out numbers in formal writing unless it is a dollar figure, a date/year, a time, a Bible verse, a decimal, or a huge or wordy number.
2.       Don’t start a sentence with a numeral. Make it “Twenty-one years ago, I choked on a Skittle” not “21 years ago….” That means you might have to rewrite some sentences: “Readers bought 121 copies of Bulletproof the first day” instead of “121 copies were bought the first day.”
3.       Centuries and decades should be spelled out. Use the Eighties or Nineteenth Century.
4.       In formal writing, you should spell out the percentage like “I don’t get fifty percent of my royalties,” but for decimals, you’ll have to write the numerals—unless they start a sentence or a quote. One out of every 7.7 people in the world has a facebook account.
5.       Rounded numbers over a million are written as a numeral plus a word. Use “There are over 526 million daily active facebook users.” If you’re using an exact number, you’d write it out, of course—526,000,212.

So let me apply a few of these rules in my writing (after all, if I don’t, you just read a very boring blog entry). I’m curious if you have ever wondered how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of a Tootsie Pop? I, oddly enough, was curious, and believe it or not, there’s a website dedicated to that very question…and a discussion forum as well (it sounds like a great way to spend some of your spare time, don’t you think?). I actually found the following quote on the Tootsie Pop website: “This is one of the most profound questions ever posed to humankind and animal alike.” The “ever” part kind of caught my eye…and, well, the part about animals posing this question too. Like a chipmunk and his buddies are standing around counting: “That’s 22,101…22,102….You can do it, Chip, and soon we’ll have answered one of the most profound Twentieth Century questions our species has ever posed.” Here’s another interesting quote: “What you have to do is measure the amount of saliva you produce per lick, measure the volume of the Tootsie Pop, find the amount each lick your saliva takes away from the pop, and divide that much by the total volume of the Tootsie Pop.” So I did the math…twice. I got fourteen once and 902 the other time. So here I was, pleased with myself for coming up with such scientifically accurate data when I ran upon this third quote, reminding me that my data could be flawed if I didn’t consider “acidity of saliva, coarseness of the tongue, pressure per square inch that the tongue is applied to the surface of the tootsie pop, ambient temperature, and the age of the tootsie pop.” So that is when my head exploded, and I unintentionally bit down on my pop after just 112 licks, and what do you know? There was the center tootsie roll. One hundred twelve is the answer.  

So there you are. You know new rules, you’ve discovered a cool new web site, and you have the answer to one of the most profound questions ever posed. It’s been a good day at The Red Pen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Auto-Correct and Spell Check

Smart phones are awesome. How did we ever survive without all the information they provide at our fingertips? They even correct our spelling for us because, of course, our smart phones know what we want to type even better than we do. At least they think they do--because they’re so smart. A few days ago, I texted my wife and made a smart-alecky comment, followed by the all-important initials jk because, well, I was just kidding. My auto-correct apparently thought I was much more serious than I did, so it auto-corrected to JFK—capital letters and everything. Now, why would I bring John F. Kennedy up? And why would my smart phone think I was talking about him? Was he a smart aleck? Have I ever brought him up before? A friend mentioned the other day that she used the word blah in a text because she was “having a bad day.” It was auto-corrected to Budapest. I got a good laugh out of that, but it was nothing compared to what happened last night. After the Tigers/Yankees playoff baseball game, I texted to a friend that Jeter (Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter) broke his ankle. Jeter was auto-corrected to heterosexual. I kid you not. My smartphone thought I wanted to say that “heterosexual broke his ankle.” I seriously wasn’t thinking about his sexual preferences; I was thinking about a bone near his foot.

All the above was just introduction, though, to what I really have on my mind about spelling. There are two words that are so commonly misspelled, that, as the wielder of the red pen, I feel it is my duty to straighten things out.

1st word:  a lot—a lot is two words. I find it interesting that an older version of my Word program ALWAYS underlined alot, indicating it was spelled wrong, but the correction option was allot instead of a lot. My newer version actually fixes the word now and puts the space that belongs. There is no argument about a lot being two words. It just is. 

2nd word: all right—all right is always two words too. But unlike alot, alright is NOT corrected by the Word program, nor is it underlined as an incorrect spelling. Hmmm. Interestingly, the Microsoft Word spellchecker will not highlight alright as an error, but it will also not suggest alright if you spell it incorrectly (for instance, alrite).  Microsoft seems to be sitting on the fence with regard to alright being accepted as standard. I UNDERSTAND it when people say that our language is changing, but what I don’t understand is WHY. Is it because of laziness? Lack of education? I read somewhere that all right is the most commonly misspelled word in the English language (not by number of misspellings but by the consistency of misspellings). 

I’m going to just use some common sense here. I’ve looked at source after source that says that alright is the misspelling of all right. They say that alright is “informal” and that it is “gaining a shadowy acceptance in British English” or “alright is a nonstandard variant of all right.  Even though alright is becoming more acceptable, it is best avoided” or “generally, most editors and teachers don’t think alright is all right” or “alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing” or “alright’s interdiction is as pure an example as possible of a rule without a reason” or “still, even though alright is closing ground on all right, the latter is never wrong and the former is still considered problematic by some” or  all right  should always be used in more formal, edited writing” or (finally) “if you cannot avoid all right or alright, then opt for all right. Using alright, especially in formal writing, runs a higher risk that your readers will view it as an error. It is far more difficult to justify alright than all right.” One source simply suggested avoiding the word (or words) altogether.

Here’s my point since I’m supposed to make one. When I see the words “problematic…non-standard…informal…illiterate…unacceptable…best-avoided…a rule without a reason…and hard to justify,” I see a problem. And when I see that in “serious writing” and “edited writing” the expectation is to use all right, and that all right is “never wrong,” I tend to become all logical and determine that I will always use all right. 

All right? I’m not JFKing. I’m not having a Budapest day. I’m serious. As serious as a Derek heterosexual broken ankle.