Is Identifying a Person’s Age Necessary?

By Mark Nichol

In writing, should a given person’s age be specified?

In fiction, the number of years since a character was born is of variable importance, depending on the person’s prominence in the narrative and on the nature of the story as well, but at the very least, the author usually provides some clue, at least, as to approximate age.

But in keeping with the creative nature of fiction, the writer should find a cleverly unobtrusive way to signal age indirectly: The story can identify what grade a child is in, rather than their specific age, or can reveal how recently a teenager received a driver’s license, or can mention that a character had just graduated from college when 9/11 occurred. (None of these methods are precise, but they provide a means for the reader to estimate age.)

Of course, subtly referring to the number of candles on a birthday cake, or providing the year of birth (assuming that the current year in the story is evident), works, too — or if all else fails, just provide the number up-front. (If the character is a young child, you can add a note of whimsy by providing a fractional age, as children so eagerly do up to sometime in their preteens or early teens.)

What about age references in nonfiction? A person’s age is traditionally specified in articles about crime to help distinguish the subject from others by that name — a convenient way to avoid incriminating innocent people. However, the Code of Conduct of the National Union of Journalists, which represents press people in the United Kingdom and Ireland, specifies that its members “shall mention a person’s age [and other identifying characteristics] only if this information is strictly relevant.” I could not find a similar Stateside pronouncement, but I assume one exists. But the point is sensible. Unless providing a person’s age serves the purpose mentioned above, it is extraneous.

As in fiction, age can be implied, especially in feature articles, where subjects are also likely to be described physically despite the frequent addition of one or more photographs of the person in question. But the “John Doe, 29” treatment is superfluous (and, when ages are spelled out unless they exceed one hundred, clumsy looking).

I used to work for a nonprofit organization that reports online and in print about innovation and reform in public education, and in the thousands of articles we published, only a handful specified a person’s age. In one case, we reported on the teacher in the United States who had been working in the classroom longer than any other: sixty-nine years (so including her age wasn’t strictly necessary).

Another justification might be to highlight the age difference between an academically precocious student and his classmates — but, just as with fiction, the writer could easily make the point by describing, for example, how a preteen high school student watches television programs geared to children before doing her calculus homework.

If you do decide to directly refer to a person’s years, however, write age, not aged; people may be nutty or sharp, but they are not wine or cheese.

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9 Responses to “Is Identifying a Person’s Age Necessary?”

  • Chihuahua0

    In YA, this is pretty much unavoidable. Grade is usually an important part of the character. Two years difference can be a lot.

  • ApK

    “… a preteen high school student watches television programs geared to children before doing her calculus homework.”

    That pretty much described my at regular college age. Would still describe me today, if I had calculus homework.

    But autobiographical humor aside, that brings to mind a problem I have run into in dropping hints like that.
    I have unintentionally communicated the wrong thing… For example, readers may think I was describing a older person with a regressed taste in TV, rather than a younger person with advanced math skills.

    Presumably since the hypothetical piece is ABOUT a young math prodigy, there would be no ambiguity, but such things have happened to me when I didn’t realize there was an alternate reading.

  • ApK

    “described my” = ” “described me”
    Grr.

  • widdershins

    I deliberately refrained from specific ages for my characters. I wanted my readers to get a sense of their ages from the novel, but make up their own minds about how old they were. same with physical descriptions. Just an outline, enough to hang an opinion on.

  • Sally

    Many of these, of course, are culture-specific – the age at which one goes to/leaves ‘school,’ gets one’s licence, is legally entitled to drink alcohol, have sex or vote (or be conscripted) varies from place to place, even between ‘states’ in the same ‘country.’ Even the concept of a ‘birthday cake’ can be limiting.

    Others are also politically specific – ‘9/11’ only means anything to USans (and their ‘allies’), and, I would argue, is only significant *as a date marker* to USans with a specific worldview. And ‘the Day that Will Live in Infamy’ (7 December 1941) is less ‘infamous’ even for capitalist Russians than 6 June 1941, the day Hitler invaded the USSR.

    Note that I am not dismissing any of these as possible ‘solutions’ … merely warning against accepting any as universal.

    Perhaps specifying the character’s age is the best solution in fiction after all.

  • Mark Nichol

    Sally:

    Good points, but authors often assume cultural literacy — trusting, for example, that readers will know why Southern gentlemen were addressed as “Colonel,” or what nunnery really means.

  • Brian T.

    Another solution-example: “It was ten years ago that he graduated, still, he often reminisced about this time.”

  • Precise Edit

    As a general principle: no. In any genre, include only information that is relevant, contributes to clarity and engagement, and adds value. Why tell me something I don’t need to know?

    On the other hand, if the age is relevant and helps establish the context for something that follows, provide it.

    I once reviewed a manuscript in which the author provided a description of every person in the story. Eventually, I had had enough and started deleting entire passages. For example, I didn’t need to know that the man who walked by the car had red hair, a big, happy smile, and a smudge on his coat or that he appeared to be about 47 years old. This man wasn’t in the story previously and didn’t show up again. He was scenery.

  • Amandah

    I think it’s important to identify age if you write YA. It may even be important for non-fiction too. If you’re providing a timeline, people like to know ‘how old’ someone was when they (fill in the blank). Then again, it could be a preference. You’ve given me something to think about for my next project.

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