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The rules of the numbers game

The rules of the numbers game
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First Published: Mon, May 25 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Mon, May 25 2009. 10 48 AM IST
In August 2000, the New York Stock Exchange, or NYSE, decided to quote the changes in prices in decimals instead of fractions. An announcement such as “the stock is up 1 and 3/8ths” gave place to “up $1.37 (Rs65)”. By this shift from the fractional format to the decimal format, NYSE fell in line with the major stock exchanges of the world. The change also ensured a fair deal to the investor. In the new format, share prices moved in increments of one cent rather than fractions of up to one-sixteenth of a dollar, which would be 6 cents. This reform in stock pricing draws our attention to the importance of the mode of writing numbers.
Most of us will be called upon to cite numbers and measurements in various kinds of documents. The decimal notation using Arabic numerals is now standard in most countries for presenting data.
With international participation in research, we face problems of variation from language to language. In Germany, a decimal point is represented not by a dot, but by a comma. Where we write 17.53, a German would write 17,53. In England and the US, a comma is placed separating every three digits from the right when writing a large number: for example, 34,232. Germany uses a space instead of a comma and this number would be written as 34 232. In India, we use both lakh and million, which can cause confusion. Billion can have totally different values on the two sides of the Atlantic.
It is important, therefore, to understand the conventions followed in writing numbers in English. When do we write figures and when do we write words? How do we represent time and date in writing? The choice of numerals or words is decided generally by common sense. Some rules are applied to ensure accuracy. Some other rules have been framed to ensure consistency. Here are some general guidelines for the use of numbers:
• Spell out numbers from one to 10 and use numerals for higher numbers. There is a rough and ready rule which simply says spell out the number when it can be expressed in one or two words. The Chicago Manual of Style, however, recommends the use of words rather than numerals for numbers up to 100.
• If there is a sequence of numbers referring to the same or similar objects, use numerals uniformly since they facilitate a comparative view of the data. “The company recruited 8 electricians, 15 plumbers and 20 carpenters.”
• Do not use a number at the beginning of a sentence. Spell out that number. “Sixty-nine candidates were interviewed.” If the number is large and sounds odd at the beginning of a sentence, rephrase that sentence to move the number to a different position. “Four hundred and sixty-five recruits were posted to harbour duty.” This can be changed to “The number of recruits posted to harbour duty was 465.”
• Large numbers rounded to hundreds or thousands or millions can be spelt out. Here, it is possible to use a mixture of a numeral and a word as in “$7.5 million” (not millions). Use the same format for all the numbers in a series.
• The British form of writing dates is 2 February 2009. Alternatively, you can use the 2nd of February or February 2, 2009. There are many ways of referring to decades and you can choose what appeals to you best. Choose from the following list: 1960s, the ’60s, the ’sixties. Remember not to use an apostrophe before the plural “s”. The standard practice today is to write the full year (YYYY) followed by an “s” without an apostrophe, as in “the 1980s.”
• An important use of numbers is in stating measurements. Use numerals for stating percentages: 6%, 200%. Write out fractions less than one in words, as in three-fourths. Do not use a space to separate the “$” mark or the per cent symbol from the numeral: $25, 10%. It is advisable to use decimals for fractions when possible; decimals are easier to read, especially when comparisons have to be made. When two numerals come close together, spell out one of them: 6 nine-year-olds or six 9-year-olds. Do not add “s” to the unit of measurement to make it plural: 6 kg, not 6 kgs.
Further information can be found in various style manuals. If they differ in the recommendations they make, choose the format that appeals to you as accurate and elegant.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, May 25 2009. 01 15 AM IST