Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

by Mignon Fogarty

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by Mignon Fogarty

Avoid starting a sentence with a number if you can, but if you have to contort your writing, just write out the number and get on with your work. Unless you enjoy torturing your readers, it’s usually worth the effort to rewrite the sentence when you’re working with long or complex numbers. Consider, in these examples, how much easier the second sentence is to read:

   Twelve thousand eight hundred forty-two people attended the parade.

   The parade was attended by 12,842 people.

The second sentence uses the passive voice (see chapter 8), but passive voice is better than writing out a humongous number and taking the risk that your readers’ brains will be numb by the time they get to the verb.

When businesses report a lot of statistics and the natural place for the number is at the beginning of the sentence, they sometimes adopt a house style that puts the numeral in parentheses after the written-out number:

   Seventy-two percent (72%) of respondents chose Hawaii as their preferred destination, 20% chose Alaska, and 8% chose Arizona.

Some style guides say it is OK to start a sentence with a numeral when it is a year or a proper name (for example, the company name 3M), but more stringent style guides say to rewrite the sentence to avoid starting with a numeral. I think it is acceptable to start a sentence with a numeral in such cases, but use your own judgment—you know your audience better than I do.

   1985 was a fabulous year. (questionable)

   3M hit their numbers this quarter. (questionable)


From Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Reprinted with permission from Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2008 by Mignon Fogarty, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 by Mignon Fogarty, Inc.

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