Nit-picking Numbers

How a day spent grappling with “2” and “two” taught me something about numbers, numerals, and life

Sometimes I appreciate the technical side of editing. I don’t mean editing technical documents, necessarily – I mean the technical aspects of grammar and style that give me the illusion that I can tell right from wrong. As my previous post relates, sometimes there are good reasons for making certain changes to the copy even without the author’s permission. Even so, these are sometimes rather pompous reasons like because it’s the right way to do things or because the style guide says so.

And yet, if I learned anything today, that sort of fundamentalism can start me off on a slippery slope. Because I have a past life (emphasis on past) where I could quote chapter and verse of the Good Book with the best of them, I am all too familiar with the perils and pitfalls of dogma, no matter what the context. 

The thing I am learning to appreciate about the Chicago Manual of Style is that it makes no claims to have all the answers, and in the end, it is consistency and flexibility that truly matter. How do these things even coexist? Today’s lesson is brought to you by the number two (2). Not Number Two, silly – the number two!

The house style of the academic journal I am working for instructs authors to spell out the numbers zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and up. The exceptions are measurements (8 percent, 6 degrees) and references to specific parts of the paper (Table 1, section 5). Seems simple enough, right? Trucking along through a page proof, I come across the following:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is two (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is two (642) days. 

As an aside, this particular writing style has the peculiarity of displaying two options using parentheses: in the example above, the minimum is two days and the maximum is 538 days (or 642 days in the second clause). Two for the price of one!

This sentence struck me as odd because of the use of words and numerals in juxtaposition like this. Certainly, I thought, the copy editor was just obeying the rules… unless of course “days” is a measurement. What to do? Consult the manual, of course!

And down the rabbit hole I went, wading through several principles and their exceptions, until I came to section 9.7, so appropriately called “Consistency and flexibility”:

Where numbers occur within a paragraph or series of paragraphs, maintain consistency in the immediate context. If according to a given rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers in a given category, use them for all in that category. 

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., section 9.7

Aha, I thought. Regardless of whether “days” is considered a unit of measurement, “consistency in the immediate context” directs me to change “two” to “2” in this sentence:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is 2 (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is 2 (642) days. 

Not that I enjoy stetting any copy editing decision, but this at least made me feel a tad more confident in doing so. Resting on my little laurels, then, I press on until I encounter this gem:

both measured over the last 2 years of [term A]. … we also calculate the average return on assets, ROA, over the two fiscal years preceding [event B]. The [variable of interest] is the excess of each [firm]’s 2-year ROA over the mean of…

Consistency is out of vogue, apparently. As a proofreader, technically my only job is to compare the proof to the author copy. And lo and behold, the author copy uses “two” in all three cases in this excerpt! Why then, would a copy editor change two two’s to 2, and leave one alone? (Are you dizzy yet?)

The reason I even care is that part of my role is to follow the style guide and correct style errors in the proof, because things do get missed. Plus, for me the inconsistency is like an itch that won’t go away. The question of the day seems to be whether “years”, like “days” in the first example, is considered a unit of measure, and if it is, then why is “fiscal year” exempt?

[Note: Because this particular realm of academia walks a fine line between the humanities and mathematics, it’s not always clear whether strict scientific style applies here. And incidentally, Scientific Style and Format basically says use numerals, (almost) always, because it’s just easier that way.]

A quick email to the client reveals that no, units of time in the magnitude of days, months and years do not count as units of measure and we should spell out zero through nine in this context. Okay, I say. This is flexibility. Flexibility within a principle of style, combined with consistent application at all levels of editing (including proofreading), is a recipe for peace of mind for editors, authors, and publishers. 

More than that, I think the principle of “consistency and flexibility” could go a long way in helping me find peace of mind in other parts of my life too: relationships, parenting, hobbies, and working with animals. Being consistent and flexible helps others know what to expect, but allows for change and growth along the way. 

After all, like everything in life, language and style are constantly evolving, so we’re always reaching for a moving target. What better reason do you need to cut yourself some slack?