Spelled out numbers

Subject: Spelled out numbers
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Wed, 4 Feb 1998 08:28:38 -0600

Chuck Martin wrote <<I was taught that in most cases you
should use numerals for numbers less than 10. (There are
specific exceptions.)>>

The most common exception is that scientific publishing
uses numerals for all _measured_ quantities, and words for
all counted quantities. But this is a style decision, and
different manuals will provide different advice.

<<I'm writing solely for online right now and an sensitive
to (a) screen real estate and (b) file size.>>

How big are the numbers you're planning to discuss? This
really won't be an issue unless you're routinely talking
about numbers in the hundreds or higher. For example, the
bits you save by turning "ten" into "10" will be
overwhelmed by losses from those who quote entire messages
in their responses to this list. (Yes, that's a pet peeve.)
From an information design perspective, I'd say that you
should probably base your decision on keeping the visual
and cognitive context as close to what your readers will be
using as possible: thus, if they're looking for a year
(1998), don't spell it out because _nobody_ spells out
years, and if they'll be looking at an instrument
calibrated in numerals, then don't present your numbers in
words becuase nowhere do these words appear on the
instrument. In short, don't make the reader translate from
one visual/cognitive form to another unnecessarily.

Emily Thrush picked up the thread and responded that <<You
learned that in freshman comp - it's an academic thing.
Numerals usually work better in tech writing - for one
thing, there's research showing that people process
numerals faster and more accurately than spelled out
numbers.>>

Please don't take this as a flame, but "what research"?
While I don't disagree with your conclusion, there are
plenty of motherhood statements like this floating around,
many of which come from the School of Unattributed (and
non-peer-reviewed) Lore. I'd love to find a journal
reference on this if one exists because communicating
numbers is a crucial part of my job and updating my own
mental models and the house style guide would be helpful to
my readers.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.




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