Is Identifying a Person’s Age Necessary?
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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