Style Quiz #2: Large Numbers

By Mark Nichol

All but one of the following sentences demonstrate incorrect style for large numbers according to The Chicago Manual of Style; revise the style of the number as necessary:

1. This city of 3,000,000 has come a long way since its humble beginnings.

2. The database amounts to about fifty million documents and about 150 billion words.

3. The following year, about 2,389,000 units were produced.

4. The city’s population is about 2,245,389.

5. Last year, 50–60,000 people attended the event.

Solutions

Large numbers generally follow the same style rules as small ones, but there are special considerations for large round numbers and rounding off large numbers:

1.
Original: This city of 3,000,000 has come a long way since its humble beginnings.
Correct : This city of three million has come a long way since its humble beginnings.

For improved readability, spell out large round numbers.

2.
Original: The database amounts to about fifty million documents and about 150 billion words.
Correct : The database amounts to about fifty million documents and about 150 billion words.

When using a term of magnitude (million, billion, and so on), apply the basic rule for spelling out numbers or using numerals: Use a numeral for a number exceeding one hundred and spell out numbers of less than one hundred. When two or more numbers that refer to the same thing are mixed (at least one over and one under one hundred), use numerals consistently. This sentence is correct. (Documents and words are related but not identical.)

3.
Original: The following year, about 2,389,000 units were produced.
Correct : The following year, about 2.4 million units were produced.

For improved readability, very large numbers should be rounded up and reduced to a decimal fraction to one or two digits.

4.
Original: The city’s population is about 2,245,389.
Correct : The city’s population is 2,245,389.

Do not use about or approximately when a figure is exact, or round off the number (i.e. “The city’s population is about 2.25 million”).

5.
Original: Last year, 50–60,000 people attended the event.
Correct : Last year, 50,000–60,000 people attended the event.

When both numbers in a number range are large round numbers with the same number of digits, do not omit zeros in the first number.

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3 Responses to “Style Quiz #2: Large Numbers”

  • Agua Caliente

    I liked all of these. If I may offer my own admittedly non-standard perceptions, perhaps influenced by a large amount of exposure to numbers and data:

    #1: I immediately parsed the number; not much difference for me than if it were, for example, 5,456.

    #2. Despite the stylistic imperative, it seemed to me that “50 million” would be more quickly interpreted than “fifty.” Rules are rules, though!

    #3. Similar to #1. Took it in at one quick glance.

    #4. I had no problem considering 2,245,389 as an “about.” After all, suppose the population were exactly 2,245,692? SMH at myself.

    #5. Would any rational person think that some number of people between 50 and 60,000 attended the event? Still, I accede to the almighty CMS.

  • thebluebird11

    I suppose there is no point arguing with the CMS. Most of the time I dislike seeing numbers spelled out; I prefer to see the digits. My eyes fly over digits faster so the concept gets to my brain faster. In medical transcription, there is a rule that sentences cannot start with a number, at least not in digit format, anyway. They always tell us to recast the sentence. For example, if the doctor dictates “5 mg of Valium was given,” we would recast the sentence to read “We gave 5 mg of Valium,” or similar. Alternatively, we could write “Five mg of Valium was given,” but I know that when I read, I often skim for information, and the digit 5 will stand out better (among words/letters) than the word five. I’m just not sure I see the logic behind CMS rules on this stuff except “this is how we’ve always done it.” Maybe it’s just me.

  • thebluebird11

    Sorry for 2nd post…I should mention that I do prefer the words million, billion, etc, to all those zeroes. But I would prefer 50 million to be consistent with 150 billion (as in example 1), and not spell out fifty just because of some arbitrary CMS rule.

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