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Thread: Starting sentences with numerals?

  1. #1
    Girl Detective AW Moderator Stacia Kane's Avatar
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    Starting sentences with numerals?

    I've recently been told it's wrong to start a sentence with numerals; i.e. "5235 Western Road was a big blue house..."


    I've never heard this rule before--it sounds silly to me, honestly--and can't find it anywhere. Am I crazy, or looking in the wrong place, or what?
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    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DecemberQuinn View Post
    I've recently been told it's wrong to start a sentence with numerals; i.e. "5235 Western Road was a big blue house..."


    I've never heard this rule before--it sounds silly to me, honestly--and can't find it anywhere. Am I crazy, or looking in the wrong place, or what?
    Silly, arbitrary, whatever--it's an old rule listed in my most ancient grammar book and still alive and well today.

    More of the number rule in the manual I have:

    All numbers one through ten* and multiples of ten to a hundred are expressed as words. All others may be written as digits. Exceptions:

    1. Any number beginning a sentence must be expressed in words.

    2. Where lots of numbers are used (as in mathematics presentations), all except the first ford of a sentence may be written as digits.

    *I've seen grammars where numbers one through twenty should be expressed as words.

    I've also heard (but never seen the actual rule) that all numbers in dialogue should be written as words.
    Last edited by Chase; 11-24-2008 at 09:28 PM.

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    Girl Detective AW Moderator Stacia Kane's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chase View Post
    Silly, arbitrary, whatever--it's an old rule listed in my most ancient grammar book and still alive and well today.

    More of the number rule in the manual I have:

    All numbers one through ten* and multiples of ten to a hundred are expressed as words. All others may be written as digits. Exceptions:

    1. Any number beginning a sentence must be expressed in words.

    2. Where lots of numbers are used (as in mathematics presentations), all except the first ford of a sentence may be written as digits.

    *I've seen grammars where numbers one through twenty should be expressed as words.

    I've also heard (but never seen the actual rule) that all numbers in dialogue should be written as words.

    Yes, thanks, I'm well aware of the other rules but have never seen the one about starting sentences with numerals. It's not in Elements of Style, and I haven't seen it anywhere else. So I just wondered if it was familiar to anyone else; I guess it is.
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    Cow lover Ms Hollands's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DecemberQuinn View Post
    I've recently been told it's wrong to start a sentence with numerals; i.e. "5235 Western Road was a big blue house..."


    I've never heard this rule before--it sounds silly to me, honestly--and can't find it anywhere. Am I crazy, or looking in the wrong place, or what?
    For the publication I sub-edit, if we can't avoid starting a sentence with a number, we stick "Some" in front of it (eg: "Some 20,000 cows are due to be culled in the latest CWT cull.")

    I can't remember the exact number so don't really quote me on the cow numbers!.
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    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by April Hollands View Post
    For the publication I sub-edit, if we can't avoid starting a sentence with a number, we stick "Some" in front of it.
    Good trick. My publishers also recommends that we recast sentences such as "2,853,497,935 stars sparkled over the Missouri Breaks campsite."

  6. #6
    It's green they say FennelGiraffe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chase View Post
    I've also heard (but never seen the actual rule) that all numbers in dialogue should be written as words.
    In dialog, it's all about character voice. The character who says, "Bring one hundred eighty-three pens," the character who says, "Bring about two hundred pens," and the character who says, "Bring a couple hundred pens," are three different characters with three different voices. If you were to write, "Bring 183 pens," you would miss an opportunity to show your character's voice.
    In a science fiction novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will use this to figure out the level of technology in the society.

    In a mystery novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand that one of those objects is a clue.

    In a literary novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand it to be a metaphor for the protagonist's mental state.
    - James D. Macdonald, discussing Reading Protocols, 6 Apr 2009

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    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by FennelGiraffe View Post
    In dialog, it's all about character voice. The character who says, "Bring one hundred eighty-three pens," the character who says, "Bring about two hundred pens," and the character who says, "Bring a couple hundred pens," are three different characters with three different voices. If you were to write, "Bring 183 pens," you would miss an opportunity to show your character's voice.
    Makes excellent sense to me.

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  8. #8
    And now, back to Plotting! Duncan J Macdonald's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chase View Post
    I've also heard (but never seen the actual rule) that all numbers in dialogue should be written as words.
    I've heard the same, and I agree with it. I know how to pronounce 'five', I don't know how to pronounce '5'.
    R/
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  9. #9
    practical experience, FTW June Casagrande's Avatar
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    You're a victim of someone who read something like the "Associated Press Stylebook" and mistook it for a universal authority. It's not.

    The issue you bring up is a style issue -- NOT a matter of right and wrong. And writers aren't really responsible for knowing style.

    Yes, most publications/publishers eschew numerals at the start of sentences (with some exceptions). The "Chicago Manual of Style," which most book publishers follows, agrees. It says to spell out numbers at beginnings of sentences -- even years: "It happened in 1776," but, "Twenty twenty-one should be an interesting year." AP disagrees on that last point. Per AP: "2021 should be an interesting year."

    If I were you, I would take a very broad and oversimplied approach to the "Chicago Manual of Style." (Bear in mind that Chicago has a WHOLE CHAPTER full of rules and exceptions to the rules and exceptions to the exceptions -- just on when to write numerals or spell out numbers. Nobody expects writers to know them all.)

    So, I would:

    * Spell out most numbers (except really odd ones like 1,188) -- that's a main premise of Chicago.

    * Recast sentences to avoid numbers at the beginning but, if that doesn't work so well, I would simply write it however I wanted and let the copy editors worry about it.
    That's their job. Not yours. Yes, you want to look like a seasoned pro, but nobody expects writers to commit to memory literally dozens of specific rules and instructions and exceptions.

    * In the future, take every bit of grammar/punctuation/style advice with a grain of salt. Style books disagree. They disagree on style matters, which exist purely for consistency's sake. And they also agree on grammar issues, because grammar matters are disputed, too.

    P.S. DON'T listen to the Elements of Style. That was a style guide for one college professor's classroom a hundred years ago. Some of its wisdom still applies today. But it's not an official style guide that publishers follow today.
    Last edited by June Casagrande; 11-25-2008 at 01:01 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DecemberQuinn View Post
    I've recently been told it's wrong to start a sentence with numerals; i.e. "5235 Western Road was a big blue house..."


    I've never heard this rule before--it sounds silly to me, honestly--and can't find it anywhere. Am I crazy, or looking in the wrong place, or what?
    Really? That's why I'm gonna break the rule soon, as a snub to the pompous critics. But note I'm a fiction writer; I don't write academic books.
    Last edited by ErylRavenwell; 11-25-2008 at 10:24 AM.

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    Girl Detective AW Moderator Stacia Kane's Avatar
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    Lol, I write fiction as well, and no, I don't take any piece of grammar advice from anywhere as law.

    Thanks everyone! I'm glad I'm not the only one who questions this. I've worked out a compromise, though, so it's all good.
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  12. #12
    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    I'm kind of puzzled. If all writing is open to anyone's whim or notion of style, and any citation will be held up to ridicule as pedantic, what's the point of asking in a thread like this?

    Seems to make answering an exercise in futility.

    Here's a last cold, hard fact for the chaos crowd: put enough whims of spelling, punctuation, and grammar into your writing, and it ends in the reject pile.

  13. #13
    Living the dream CaroGirl's Avatar
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    I think first-time novelists who are trying to sell their work to agents and publishers would be better served to follow all the rules they know about. Feel free to break the rules when fans are clamouring for your next book and couldn't care less if it's experimental in its complete lack of paragraphing and capitalization (or some such).

    I studied journalism and am aware of the don't-start-sentences-with-a-number rule. It's in the AP (CP in my country) style book. I follow it by either spelling out the number or rearranging the sentence.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW June Casagrande's Avatar
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    Chase: Not all writing is open to whim or anyone's notion of style. But the question of when to write numerals versus when to spell them out is a matter of style. Open any two style guides side by side and it becomes immediately clear. They all disagree.

    In grammar, punctuation, and usage, some matters are black and white. "Me wants see he" is ungrammatical. Period. Putting commas outside of quotation marks in American writing is wrong. Period.

    That's why I'm so emphatic on the stuff that is a matter of style or on which there is some wiggle room. Sweating the unimportant stuff detracts from the important stuff.

    I know my previous post made me sound like a language anarchist. But get me on a subject like unclear antecedents or danglers or certain cases of subject-verb agreement and I'm quite the opposite!
    Last edited by June Casagrande; 11-25-2008 at 09:02 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chase View Post
    I'm kind of puzzled. If all writing is open to anyone's whim or notion of style, and any citation will be held up to ridicule as pedantic, what's the point of asking in a thread like this?

    Seems to make answering an exercise in futility.

    Here's a last cold, hard fact for the chaos crowd: put enough whims of spelling, punctuation, and grammar into your writing, and it ends in the reject pile.

    I think you're reading too much in. I find, for instance, comma splice unacceptable. But write like an academic, even for a first time novelist, and you'll end up with something rather unpalatable! And, yes, there are rules that we should anathematize as fiction writers.
    Last edited by ErylRavenwell; 11-26-2008 at 08:15 AM.

  16. #16
    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    yup yup yup gotcher,,,same as skool,,,dont be 2 smart,,,dummit down an be like everbody else

  17. #17
    Why is a raven like a writing desk? The Lonely One's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by June Casagrande View Post
    You're a victim of someone who read something like the "Associated Press Stylebook" and mistook it for a universal authority. It's not.
    Unless what you're writing is newspaper articles.

    If I make a mistake like this in an article, one of the editors will change it sure as rain.

    For fiction, I agree with the others.
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  18. #18
    Hapless Virago IceCreamEmpress's Avatar
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    No newspaper in the history of the world has ever started a sentence with "Five thousand three hundred thirty five Western Avenue" or similar.

    Address numbers are exceptions to the rule of spelling out numerals, whether or not that's actually in the AP Stylebook or the New York Times Stylesheet.

    And since December writes fiction, she's more likely to be edited by folks who are following either the Chicago Manual of Style or an in-house stylebook based on that.

  19. #19
    Why is a raven like a writing desk? The Lonely One's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by IceCreamEmpress View Post
    No newspaper in the history of the world has ever started a sentence with "Five thousand three hundred thirty five Western Avenue" or similar.

    Address numbers are exceptions to the rule of spelling out numerals, whether or not that's actually in the AP Stylebook or the New York Times Stylesheet.

    And since December writes fiction, she's more likely to be edited by folks who are following either the Chicago Manual of Style or an in-house stylebook based on that.
    Sorry, missed the reply where the user said he/she writes fiction. However, I can't think of a sentence in journalism where you would need to begin the sentence with an address. It would likely be too passive; e.g. -- 1234 W. 14th Street was where a man was robbed at gunpoint Tuesday evening. Maybe if it were more featurey, like: 1234 W. 14th Street is adorned with Christmas lights and a baby Jesus statue, and a man stands at the edge of its driveway each night to collect donations for the American Cancer Society. His name is blah blah blah.

    AP stylebook (2002): "spell out a numeral at the beginning of a sentence. If necessary, recast the sentence. There is one exception -- a numeral that identifies a calendar year."
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  20. #20
    Hapless Virago IceCreamEmpress's Avatar
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    I agree, The Lonely One, that it seems much easier to avoid it.

    But if push came to shove, I think that the sheer idiocy of writing out "Five thousand three hundred and six Western Avenue" would trump any sane copyeditor's concern for the rule.

  21. #21
    Why is a raven like a writing desk? The Lonely One's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by IceCreamEmpress View Post
    I agree, The Lonely One, that it seems much easier to avoid it.

    But if push came to shove, I think that the sheer idiocy of writing out "Five thousand three hundred and six Western Avenue" would trump any sane copyeditor's concern for the rule.
    is 'sane copyeditor' an oxymoron?
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  22. #22
    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    Address numbers beginning a sentence

    From "The Gingerbread Girl" in Stephen King’s 2008 anthology, Just after Sunset:

    "I don’t know him," Em said. "And I didn’t see any red Mercedes." Nor did she know which house belonged to 366.
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Three sixty-six turned out to be the Pillbox, and for the first time since she’d come to Vermillion, the gate was standing ajar.

    Of course, one isolated use in fiction does not create a pattern. The example probably only shows King is just another victim of those horrible, way-harsh academics and the grammar guides they fiendishly tout.

  23. #23
    Hapless Virago IceCreamEmpress's Avatar
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    I think that all that tells us is that the copyeditor for Just After Sunset has a different interpretation of where this rule is, and is not, to be followed than I do. You know what Mao said: let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend.

    This isn't one of those things like subject-verb agreement or how to spell 'cat' that there is only going to be one Right Answer to. Writers should do what they think is right; copyeditors are going to do what they think is right; and if there's a dispute between the two (as there would have been with me if this had been my book!) the editor is the final judge.

    Writers and copyeditors disagree all the time. I've been on both sides of that discussion. Not everything has one unambiguous Right Answer.

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    War of 1812 Vet Chase's Avatar
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    Last edited by Chase; 11-28-2008 at 09:55 PM. Reason: Avoiding another lecture

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