Two thousand one hundred sixty-five years ago …
2165 years ago …
Is one version okayand one not? Strict grammarians and the editors of the New Yorker would say yes, you need to spell out a number when it starts a sentence – no exceptions. But like so many rules, we’re seeing this one break down.
It’s common to see the “words-not-numerals” edict ignored, which prompts me to wonder whether this is a problem or just another example of how language evolves. In other words, are we being a Mrs. A. if we insist on enforcing the rule? Let’s consider its the positives and negatives for the rule:
Why The Rule Makes Sense
We’ve established structures for signaling to readers that we’ve reached the end of one sentence and we’re beginning another. This is so built in to our way of writing that we don’t think about it:
- Use a period to say you’re done with one sentence.
- Put a space – or in the old days, two spaces – between the period and the next sentence.
- Capitalize the first letter of the word beginning the new sentence.
Looked at that way, spelling out the number is the equivalent of that capital first letter. It’s a way of saying, “This is the beginning of a sentence.”
Without the contrast between the word and numeric form, there’s no way to indicate that shift. You could say that the period and space are enough, but if so, why not start sentences with a lowercase letter in the first word?
Why The Rule Is Dated
In a word, readability.
It probably took you three times as long to grasp the meaning of two thousand one hundred sixty-five years ago as it did to understand 2165 years ago. The second version takes up a lot less space, too.
Another consideration on why we should let go of the “words-not-numerals” rule: We use numbers a lot more these days than we did when the rules of English were created. We’re data-driven.
There aren’t many occasions to worry about the use of numbers in sentences when you’re writing about Heathcliff’s love for Catherine. There are when you’re discussing the results of an intensive marketing research project.
Here are my tips on when to obey the rule on spelling out numbers at the beginning of a sentence:
1) Use it when your audience is highly educated: Those New Yorkerreaders? Yeah, they’re going to get annoyed if you start a sentence with a number. So will a lot of educated people who’ve been trained to follow the rule. They’ll think less of you. Sorry – they just will.
2) Recast your sentence: You probably can rephrase the sentence so you can start with something other than a number. That might require writing in the passive tense, but it may be worth the trade-off.
3) Use it when the number is short and you don’t have a lot of them in the rest of your piece: If our first example was about something that happenedFifteen years ago …, we wouldn’t have the same readability problem. Just write it out and be done with the matter.
4) Don’t use it when you DO refer to a lot of numbers: If you’re writing that marketing research report, you’re going to annoy your readers if you start hundreds of sentences by spelling out the number. There’s also the weirdness of how we pronounce years in these early decades of the 21st century: Twenty fourteen? Two thousand three? Ugh. No wonder some guides now say it’s okay to start sentences with a number when referring to a year.
5) Use bullet points or other forms instead of sentences when possible: Bullet points are an automatic signal to the reader that you’re chunking information into different units. That makes it okay to put a number right after the bullet point itself.
6) Consider a print-vs.-digital distinction: Because readability is more of a problem on a screen than on paper, it makes sense to use numbers more readily for online use. This is why the Yahoo! Style Guide takes a different tack to spelling out numbers below 10 while the AP Style Guide says you need to write, “one, two, three …”
7) In headlines, a number is probably okay: Here’s another old school vs. new school distinction. A lot of newspapers insist that their headlines spell out the number if used at the beginning: Sixteen witnesses set to testify at bribery trial. But with the advent of listicles and the like, we’ve let the rule lapse. I think that’s okay – a headline on its own tells you that it’s a new sentence. So to settle the question, you just read: 7 Tips On Starting A Sentence With A Number.
Michael Blumfield is an independent marketing communications consultant in St. Paul, Minn. (Or is it MN? That’s the subject of another column.) Reach him at email@example.com.