Monday, 8 January 2018

Lead paragraphs with words, not numerals

There are lots of rules about using numbers in writing. Generally, writing manuals and style guides tell us to write out whole numbers from zero to nine in words, with numbers from ten and up as numerals. A secretary in a past workplace told me that, and I have used it ever since.

However, recently I read some student work where paragraphs led with numbers in places, and I was surprised at how much I disliked seeing a paragraph start with a numeral. I felt that we shouldn't start paragraphs with a numeral; that we are better to write "A significant majority of respondents - 90% - see the provision..." not "90% of respondents see the provision...". This 'rule' applies in all circumstances aside from dates, where we may write “2017 held many challenges...”. However, we will probably still find this more difficult to read. It is easier to read "The many challenges of 2017 were...".

The really interesting thing was that I have no idea WHY we don't start with numbers. I thought that I could easily go and find out online, but I have not yet been able to find out where this 'rule' comes from. It might just be as prosaic as it is easier to begin a paragraph with text than with numbers. Perhaps we automatically look for a numbered list when we see a number, to so avoid that, we don't lead off with one. Or something.

As I have mentioned, I have been undertaking a FutureLearn course on technical writing from the University of Reading (here). One of my fellow students suggested we avoided starting sentences with a number because having text with a capital letter better prepared the reader for what was to come.

I have no definitive answers as yet. Will keep you posted!



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