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Editing Your Work: Numbers

Erica Midkiff Copy Editor - Rena Tom

Photo © Erica Midkiff

I’ve talked a lot about consistency, but something you may not think a lot about is consistency in numbers. Different styles tell us to treat numbers in several different ways, but it doesn’t really matter which you choose unless you’re working for or with someone who has a strong preference. (Newspapers, for example, tend to favor numerals from around 10 because space is at a premium and “28” is a lot shorter than “twenty-eight.) The real trick is to be consistent!

For example, will you spell out numbers through ten? One hundred? Will you spell out ordinals (1st, second, etc.) through the same numbers? How will you treat large, even numbers like one thousand (or 1,000)?

Note that no matter what direction you take, it’s preferable not to start a sentence with a number. Even if you’re only spelling out numbers through ten, write “Fifty-five cats are meowing at the door” not “55 cats are meowing at the door.” Alternatively, you could recast the sentence to avoid having the number at the beginning of the sentence—maybe “I heard 55 cats meowing at the door.” (Also, potentially ask yourself if there’s a stray cat problem in your neighborhood.)

And at what time were those cats meowing at your door? Were they there at 5 a.m.? Or 5 am? (I have to say, no matter the style you use, those cats need to come back at a decent hour.)

And what percentage of those cats was female? Was it 14%? Or fourteen percent?

And finally, if one of those cats were to give you their cell phone number (this example may be getting out of hand), would you write it down as 111-111-1111? Or (111) 111-1111?

The point is that there are a lot of ways that you can either be consistent or inconsistent with numbers. Chances are, you already have a style that you use and just aren’t aware of; it’s a good idea to figure it out, though, and make sure you keep up with it. Consistency is key!


: Erica Midkiff // Copy Editor :

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  1. Cari says:

    I would totally call a cat if it gave me its phone number. 

    Do you prefer periods or no periods in a.m. and p.m.? Maybe I’ve been sticking with AP style for too long, but I really like those periods.

    • I would too, Cari! Such a silly thought. :)

      You know, I typically use the periods if I’m being formal (as in editing something), but if I’m writing an email to someone, I usually don’t. Funny right?

  2. Erica, this is a wonderful post. It captures so well the consistency issues that may slip the mind of a writer but with which we copy editors grapple daily. Even better, it captures the personalities of our devoted editorial assistants (i.e. cats).

    • Thank you, Wendy! There are so many small details to grapple with daily; it’s a good thing we have those devoted assistants! One has parked himself directly behind my chair as I type, so apparently I’ll be sitting here for a while. ;) He’s a tough boss!

  3. […] on a roll with consistency posts! This time, let’s talk about titles or headers within your writing. These introduce […]

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