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.