By the numbers

How do you write numbers in literature?

It’s a point on which I’ve argued with quite a few people.  I’ve heard all the arguments from the journalists, who say you write out one through nine, but use numerals for anything larger. When I’m writing for the Sault Star, I do that.

Literature, however, is not journalism. Journalism is about conveying facts and news, and literary style is a far second. In literature, style is second to story, true, but it’s much more important than in journalism.

When I’m reading a story, I want to be immersed in the world of the story. I think the writer, and probably even the publisher, also want me to be immersed in that world. It seems to me that the whole point of rewriting, polishing, proofreading and editing is to create that very effect.

We study word use, sentence structure, punctuation and grammar precisely so that our meanings will be clear and the reader’s experience uninterrupted by a “what-did-that-mean?” moment. I call those moments “bounced out of the story”, and I try to avoid inflicting them on my own readers.

According to neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth, the parts of the brain that process words are different from the parts of the brain that process numbers. We store words in  the left temporal lobe, at least in most right-handers, and  in the left frontal lobe. Numbers are stored in the parietal lobe, in a separate system.

Even if there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule in literature, then, processing numerals requires a double-think, a switch in the area of the brain you’re using to read. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to that switch, or maybe I’m just bloody-minded (it’s probably the latter), but I find that numerals bounce me out of the story. If the numbers are written out, that doesn’t seem to happen.

I often wonder why a writer would write “10” instead of “ten” anyway. Our trade is words. Would you write “The co. he worked for” or “available for a ltd. time”? No, you wouldn’t, even though “co.” is read as “company” and “ltd.” as “limited”. It’s a matter of style – we tacitly agree that those abbreviations don’t belong in a work of literature.

Date and time are sometimes exceptions. For example, I’d write “The clock said 7:45.” because the display on a digital clock says just exactly that, but if a character were speaking, they would say “seven forty-five” or “quarter to eight”. (Even Grammar Girl, who doesn’t actually speak about numbers in literature per se, says that they should be written out in dialogue.) Perhaps we see dates, such as “July 16, 1966” as units in themselves, some kind of meta-word. I don’t know.

I’m sure this is a debate which will rage as long as people write. When I write, I’ll write out the numbers, and when I critique or edit, I’ll spot those numerals and most of the time I’ll suggest they be changed. I just think it’s a matter of style.

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5 Responses to By the numbers

  1. What a great post… and blog. You have so many wonderful reference articles, so I’ll be visiting often. Thanks so much.

  2. ecreith says:

    Thanks for stopping by! I like your blog, too. I don’t think I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year – just slog away on The Swan Harp.

  3. Arindam says:

    nice post …. real good one !!!!

  4. Henry Troup says:

    I’d think both numbers and dates matter most if they appear in dialog. It could be important if the character says “Fifteen March” or “March Fifteenth” or “the Ides of March”.

  5. Thanks, Arindam!
    Henry, you crack me up! “Ides of March”, indeed!

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