Writing numbers: a sticky wicket *

Anyone who writes will tell you there is one aspect of fiction writing that causes them more trouble than any other: numbers.  

I am currently editing a novel for another author, the subject of which is submarine warfare during World War II.  The book is extremely well written, and the author is more than acquainted with the subject matter, having served on a submarine or two during his time in the Navy.  However, because of the technical nature of the book, there are innumerable references to dates, military time, and gun nomenclature.  To compound the problem, these are often used in the book’s dialogue sections.

What’s the big deal? you might ask.  The “big deal” is that when used in dialogue, numbers should never be shown as numerals, but should be written out instead.  But I digress.

When I became a sportswriter many years ago, I was handed an AP Stylebook, and told to memorize it—which I did.  One of the most important things covered was the use of numbers in reporting.  Some of the rules were: Never start a sentence with a numeral (write it out instead); write out numbers from one to nine; any number greater than ninety-nine should always be shown as a numeral, like 100, except that you should never use a written number and a numeral in the same sentence—unless the sentence begins with a number (which must be written out) and there is a number greater than ninety-nine, which should be shown as a numeral . . .

Are you catching my drift?  It’s complicated!  And, there are exceptions.  And, there are exceptions to the exceptions.  If you Google™ the subject, you’d be amazed at the variety of responses there are, and each one of them will be in conflict, or at least in part, with the others.  So what do you do?

Well, as I have learned the hard way, you first follow the basic rules—wherever you can.  But, from there on, it’s a matter of common sense and a feel for artistic (and literary) perception.  If it looks weird on the page, you probably shouldn’t do it.  And here is where the dialogue “thing” comes in.  Someone a lot wiser than I am once told me “. . . people do NOT speak in numerals; they speak in words.”  In other words, you wouldn’t have your character saying something like this:

“It’s 5 o’clock, Roger.  Don’t you think we ought to be going?  After all, the bus has to travel along 12 miles of highway to reach the city.”

You would write it thusly: “It’s five o’clock, Roger.  Don’t you think we ought to be going?  After all, the bus has to travel along twelve miles of highway to reach the city.”

Pretty simple, right?  Wrong.  What if the bus had to travel 1,255 miles?  How would you write that?  Let’s take a look at two examples:

Example 1:  “. . . the bus has to travel along twelve hundred and fifty-five miles of highway . . .”

Example 2:  “. . . the bus has to travel along 1,255 miles of highway . . .”

Which looks better?  Technically, Example 1 is correct, of course.  (Oops, did I just use a numeral that was less than ten?)  However, our good literary sense says that Example two looks better (or should I have written Example Two?) 

And then there are references to dates and time.

“We were told to arrive at precisely 11:58 on the morning of July 4, 2013.”

But it could also be written this way:

“We were told to arrive at precisely eleven fifty-eight on the morning of July Fourth, two thousand thirteen.”

 Which version would you choose?  For my money it would be a combination of the two, and it would read:

“We were told to arrive precisely at eleven fifty-eight on the morning of July 4, 2013.”  

Why?  Because it just looks right.

The problem that prompted me to write this post in the first place was this.  A character in the war novel was telling another character to arrive at his office at 0800, which is military time for 8:00 a.m. (civilian time).  In trying to follow “the rules,” I changed the dialogue to read “Be in my office at Oh Eight Hundred.”  The author resisted.  “You may not have characters speak in numerals,” I insisted.  He balked.  I insisted.  We were at an impasse.  (And that’s when I hit the old Google button.)  He won.  “We” wrote it as “Be in my office at 0800 hours.”  Sometimes, we need to use common sense.  (Apparently, he had more of it than I did.)

So, there you have it, a brief examination of the use of numbers in fiction writing (and I didn’t even bother discussing gun calibers).  My advice?  Follow the rules as closely as you can (I’m referring to the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style) and then use good old common sense to handle the exceptions.

After all, you’ll always be right—probably—unless you’re not.  Just Google it; you’ll see!

*A sticky wicket (or sticky dog, or glue pot) is a metaphor used to describe a difficult circumstance. It originated as a term for difficult circumstances in the sport of cricket, caused by a damp and soft pitch. Wikipedia

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About AuthorJoePerroneJr

I am a former professional fly-fishing guide, and I write the Matt Davis Mystery Series, which presently consists of five books: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day, Twice Bitten, Broken Promises and Deadly Ransom. The series is set in the real town of Roscoe, NY, in the Catskill Mountains, where I guided for ten years. I love fly fishing, movies, cooking (and eating), and music. To learn more about me and my writing, please visit my website at: http://www.joeperronejr.com.
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15 Responses to Writing numbers: a sticky wicket *

  1. balroop2013 says:

    I get you Joe…reading fiction is so easy! Editing…well you know better! 🙂 It is good to skip rulebook to make it more readable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. allenrizzi says:

    Great points! Personally, my wicket is stuck! I too read the AP Stylebook and the MLA Stylebook but I prefer to write in a way that is naturally understood by my readers. After all, we’re living in Two Thousand Eighteen….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. yolanda gernant says:

    I always enjoy your writing, Joe!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Since I don’t write narration, I try to take the reader into consideration. What makes it easiest for the reader often determines what I do. Never was much on rules in any aspect of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why you old “closet progressive,” you! I see it now: you, back in the ‘60s, in tie dyed T-shirt, bell bottom jeans, and sandals, parading around at the back of a hare krishna conga line – boom chaackalaka, boom chaackalaka, boom chaackalaka . . . 🙂


  5. Richard Dawley says:

    In your bus trip example, I would take the second choice to make the ride shorter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, past the numbers, the next question is when and where to place a comma! I say, “Wherever it makes the meaning and intent of emotion more clear?” Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma away, smiles!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. KiM says:

    Oh, it must just make you want to get out your red pen when you read my blog. In my books, I paid more attention to stuff like that but I don’t plan to write again (just covers) and my blog is for fun. Although my last photography post happens to be about numbers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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