Nixed Numerals Keep Clarity

By LaRocque, Paula | The Quill, August 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Nixed Numerals Keep Clarity


LaRocque, Paula, The Quill


Mixing numbers and words is responsible for much cloudy communication. A useful guideline for media writers dealing with numbers is to limit them to three per sentence. That guideline is particularly helpful if the numbers require comparison or calculation. Here's an all-too-typical sentence from a business story:

Following a two-day loss of 143.49 points, the Dow Jones industrial average of 30 stocks Friday rose as much as 96.98 before closing up 21.22 points, or 0.2 percent, at 9,200.75, with the week's gain for the Dow being 0.9 percent.

What does that sentence need? A couple of periods. Short sentences are especially helpful in number-heavy passages, so careful writers cut up unmanageable slabs into bite-size pieces:

The Dow Jones industrial average rose as much as 96.98 Friday before closing at 9,200.75. That gain of 21.22 points, or 0.2 percent, followed a two-day loss of 143.49 points. The Dow's gain for the week was 0.9 percent.

Numbers are even more confusing when they have different forms - that is, percentages, fractions, some written out, some in numeral form, etc. Consider the following:

The ninth-grade students did well on most of the three-part test with at least 85 percent of the students at more than two-thirds of the schools passing seven of the 28 test objectives.

That sort of muddy writing is impossible to understand. Even taking the sentence apart and absorbing it a few words at a time fails to clarify - and in any case, why should readers have to do the writer's work?

Also critical to immediate clarity is the presence of symbols. A passage laden with numbers will be especially forbidding if it also contains other visually uninviting material - dollar signs, decimals, percentage symbols, acronyms or abbreviations. The result can strike the reader's eye as alphabet soup:

NationsBank Corp., created by the merger of NCNB Corp. and CD&-S-Sovran Corp., reported Monday it lost $244 million, or $1.08 per share, in the fourth quarter of 1991.

That sentence would be immensely improved in both appearance and content if "created by the merger of NCNB Corp. and CD&S-Sovran Corp." were held for a later sentence. That revision would yield a clarified and more attractive "NationsBank Corp. reported Monday that it lost $244 million, or $1.08 per share, in the fourth quarter of 1991."

Appearance is of special importance when dealing with numbers and symbols. Writers naturally tend to write, forgetting that prose and textual presentation is uninviting when it is dense with forbidding matter. …

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