Bite-sized Tips No. 26: Common Mistakes Part 3 – Numbers (1)

Common Mistakes in Papers for Publication Part 3 – Numbers (1)

I spend a lot of my work time improving academic texts. This can involve revising the translations that authors have produced of their own work or editing their non-native efforts at writing directly into English. Unfortunately, the results are never error-free and, as I mostly revise and edit articles and papers written by Spanish speakers, I repeatedly come across the same mistakes.

In the first instalment of this series within a series, I highlighted ten of these common mistakes including the use of etc. and et al.

In the second, I focused on whether to use data is or data are, some punctuation problems and issues with capitalisation.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 of the common mistakes series will focus on numbers. This is a complex subject and I recommend you look up numbers in the style manuals you use for more information.

As before, I’ll look at what the New Oxford Style Manual says about numbers, since this is the style guide I usually base my work on, and compare usage with the preference in The Chicago Manual of Style where it differs.

1. Oxford says we should write out numbers in a non-technical text up to 100. Chicago says zero to one hundred, so a slight difference.

In technical texts, however, numbers up to and including ten are written in words according to Oxford. Chicago says zero to nine (again, a slight difference), and indicates the same usage in many publications, including scientific and journalistic contexts. However, different choices can be made and the important thing is to be consistent across the text.

Whether to write the number as a figure or a word is definitely something you should look up in the style manual you’re asked to use.

2. According to Oxford, it’s customary (but not obligatory) to write out a number when placed at the beginning of a sentence. Chicago categorically states that numbers starting sentences are always spelled out. Both, however, recommend trying to rewrite the sentence to avoid ending up with an awkward start.

For example:

a) One hundred and seventy-two people were surveyed for this research. = correct but not preferred in both UK and US usage

In total, 172 people were surveyed for this research. = less awkward option

In all, 172 people were surveyed for this research. = less awkward option

b) Three hundred and seven of the 453 respondents did not agree with the statement. = correct but not preferred in both UK and US usage

Of 453 respondents, 307 did not agree with the statement. = less awkward option

c) Nineteen eighty-five was a significant year in shaping the future of forest landscapes worldwide. = correct but not preferred in both UK and US usage

The year 1985 was significant in shaping the future of forest landscapes worldwide. = less awkward option

3. Decades can be written out in words (but only when we know which century is referred to) or in numerals.

For example:

the thirties or the 1930s are both correct

However, adding an apostrophe before the “s” and writing 1930’s isn’t correct. Don’t write the ’30s either. Although Chicago says that writing 1930s and ’40s is an acceptable less formal option when referring to two decades, Oxford only accepts the 1930s and 1940s.

There is also a difference in meaning between writing the decade as a word or a number. For example, the fifties refers to a particular social, cultural and political period while the 1950s is simply a time span.

Care should also be taken when referring to the first two decades in a century. The 1800s usually refers to the nineteenth century and not the first ten years of that century. The first decade of the nineteenth century can be used instead. We can write the 1810s for the second decade, but, according to Chicago (cannot find any mention of this in Oxford), the teens shouldn’t be used.

4. Both Oxford and Chicago prefer centuries to be written out in words (nineteenth century), although Oxford specifies that other style guides will vary and opt instead for figures (i.e. 19th century). Copying the Roman numeral style of your source language is, however, not correct (i.e. do not write XIX century). As with all your choices, you need to be consistent in your usage throughout the document.

When used as an adjective, a hyphen is needed. For example: a ninth-century church (or a 9th-century church, if you’re using numbers).

Image by Willfried Wende from Pixabay

Bite-sized Tips No. 1: Common Mistakes Part 1

Bite-sized Tips No. 6: Common Mistakes Part 2

Bite-sized Tips No. 27: Common Mistakes Part 4 – Numbers (2)

Bite-sized Tips No. 28: Common Mistakes Part 5 – Numbers (3)

Bite-sized Tips No. 16: Times

Bite-sized Tips No. 25: False Friends on Hotel Websites

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5 thoughts on “Bite-sized Tips No. 26: Common Mistakes Part 3 – Numbers (1)

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