3 Types of Awkward References to Numbers

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This post describes various usage pitfalls that can interfere with clarity when numbers are involved.

Take care when using the word over before a sequence of numbers that might be confused for a figure, as in “The Ohio city will settle a lawsuit over 911 calls,” which might mistakenly suggest to readers that one or more verbs have erroneously been omitted before a reference to more than a given number of calls, rather than that 911 refers to the phone number for reporting an emergency. The sentence is easily revised to “The Ohio city will settle a lawsuit regarding 911 calls.”

Also, two numbers in numeral form should not appear in sequence, as in this example in which an age is followed by a count: “The day the slain woman was to turn 28, 3,000 people gathered at a church to recall her life.” The proximity of 28 and 3,000 with an intervening comma suggests that the number 283,000, or a similarly appearing figure, has been incorrectly rendered. (Readers will not make that assumption, but the initial confusion is distracting.)

If a publication’s style requires ages to be given in numerals, spell out the attendance count, an acceptable treatment of a large round number. If that figure is exact, change it to an estimate styled as a spelled-out round number, or recast the sentence: “On the day the slain woman should have been celebrating her 28th birthday, 3,000 people gathered at a church to recall her life.”

Finally, do not use forces or troops to refer to individual military service members, as in “Forty-four US forces were hurt in a rocket-propelled grenade attack yesterday” or “Three troops were found guilty in the black market scheme.” Use soldiers, sailors, marines, or “service members” (marines, not soldiers, should be used to refer to members of the US Marine Corps): “Forty-four US marines were hurt in a rocket-propelled grenade attack yesterday”; “Three soldiers were found guilty in the black market scheme.”

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13 thoughts on “3 Types of Awkward References to Numbers”

  1. Mark Nichol…I just fell in love with you! I have loved your posts for the past year, maybe longer. I have encouraged my coworkers to turn to you for aid in writing. But this one threw me right over the edge as a huge fan ;).

    For several years I have been griping about the media using “troops” to refer to individuals. In fact, when I lived in Arkansas I messaged a news anchor at my local station and got them to change the practice. The last item in this post has completely made my day.

    I thought the slogan “An Army of One” was idiotic and I can’t stand the use of troops to refer to one member of the military. THANK YOU!!!

  2. Mark, thanks as always for your thoughtful exegesis. I declare, I don’t know how you do it, day after day!

    That said, I don’t agree with your edit of the first example. Changing ‘over’ to ‘regarding’ doesn’t really solve the problem, IMHO. It’s just a slight shift in perspective. I would take a different tack, perhaps changing ‘911’ to ‘9-1-1’? Or recasting the sentence: ‘The Ohio city will settle a lawsuit regarding calls to the 911 emergency line.’ Or some such.

  3. Mary, “over 911” means 912, 913, 914, … , 999 … Look again.

    I agree with you that “the 911 emergency line” would be a big improvement. Note that in many other countries, other numbers are used for the emergency number, such as “999” in the United Kingdom.

  4. Note that “troops” is completely inappropriate for small groups of soldiers, or only ones, and Marines are not “troops”, and furthermore “Marine” is a proper noun and it is capitalized. This is true for other members of elite groups in the military, such as Army Ranger, Green Beret, Navy SEAL, Air Policeman, Royal Marine, SAS, and the elites of Canada, Germany, Holland, South Korea, etc.

    According to the Associated Press, all references to U.S. Marines are proper nouns: “Marine”. I wrote a note to the AP to tell the people there that the same goes for Royal Marines, Dutch Marines, South Korean Marines – all celebrated for their toughness and courage – but I did not win any converts there. The attitude of the Associated Press is that it will make its own decisions, and to “heck” with anyone else.

    In the former Soviet Union, there were the elite Spetznatz units, too. Do those exist in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus anymore?

  5. The following statement was quite confusing and probably incorrect, too.

    If that figure is exact, change it to an estimate styled as a spelled-out round number, or recast the sentence: “On the day the slain woman should have been celebrating her 28th birthday, 3,000 people gathered at a church to recall her life.”

    “28th” is an ordinal number. Hence by the rule that is stated above, it must be spelled out as “twenty-eighth”. Further, the part about “estimate styled as a spelled-out round number” seens to imply that “three thousand” should be spelled out. The number 28th is an EXACT number, and 3,000 is the only other number in the entire statement, and it is an estimate.

    I also object to the use of the word “styled”. That is not in common use in American English, or else it is not used at all. We use the verb “to express” or “to write”, and that “to style” smacks of very formal British English.
    For example, the number pi is expressed as 3.14159265…, and not “styled”. The birthdate of the United States is “expressed as July 4, 1776”, and not “styled”.

    Note that there are cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers, but they are both “numbers”. If you don’t know these terms, it is time to look them up and learn.

  6. To Dale A. Wood,
    You missed the key point in the guidance (“. . . or recast the sentence:”); the example given did exactly that, separating the numbers whose former proximity could have given rise to reader confusion.

    On a separate matter, although I occasionally (and reluctantly) use the AP Stylebook, it is considerably less thorough and less refined than the Chicago Manual of Style—and CMOS correctly uses “marine” (lowercased) when it stands alone, as a descriptor roughly equivalent to “soldier” or “sailor.” (CMOS does recognize that such terms are “routinely capitalized in official or promotional contexts,” but that doesn’t make it a worthwhile practice for general use.)

  7. One could apply the same logic to the writing of dates.

    In the above comment, for example: October 9, 2013 1:01 does run a lot of numbers together. 09 October 2013 at least splits up the date into what is a much more common format internationally. It seems to be ‘only in America’ (and often in Canada) that the number comes before the month.

    But note too that the US armed forces and some other institutions would write this 09 Oct 2013 13:01 or perhaps just, 9 Oct 2013 . . .

    The international standard, used more and more in the sciences, is of course: 2013 10 09 13:01. The sooner everyone gets used to this the better we’ll all be.

    My mini-rant for the day.


  8. Thanks, Dale — I get it that ‘over’ means ‘more than’; in fact, I prefer to use ‘more than’ when describing numbers, reserving ‘over’ to describe physical location or stature or, as in the sample sentence, to mean ‘with regard to’. Changing ‘over’ to ‘regarding’ doesn’t address the problem with the sentence, to wit, the implication that the lawsuit involves nine hundred and eleven phone calls. My rewrite would work just as well if it said, ‘The Ohio city will settle a lawsuit over calls to the 911 emergency line.’

    ‘Over’ is a real chameleon of a word, come to find out. But Merriam-Webster online doesn’t offer a definition of it as it was used in the sample sentence. I didn’t let myself get upset over it, however.

    Over and out,

  9. Mary:

    Thanks for your note. I still believe that regarding deters readers from misreading 911 as an amount, and “9-1-1” is an unnecessary complication, as is the overly formal description “the 911 emergency line.”

  10. Well, Overly Formal is my middle name. With a hyphen, of course, not generally required after an adverb, but hey…: Overly-Formal.

  11. Would that be a middle name or middle names? Is it really a hyphen or a dash? If the last, is it an em-dash or an en-dash? I am becoming so self-conscious, not self-conscience or self-conscientious. No, wait, maybe self-conscientious, or just plain conscientious. Dang this is hard!

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