Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How Does Your Writing Measure Up?

 Hello, dearies! I hope you brought your appetites today, because your Style Maven has been baking up an absolute storm. Aprons are definitely in right now as the perfect accent for a kitchen full of caramel sweet rolls, blueberry spice cake, and pumpkin scones.

Aside from their to-die-for yumminess, these recipes have something important in common. They all require the magic of measuring. Most commercially-printed recipes are easy to follow, but how many of you Suzy or Sam Homemakers have had to decipher Great Aunt Tilly’s hasty handwriting in a hand-me-down cookbook? She certainly knew what she meant, but how about you? Is that supposed to be seven cups, or only two?

Using words instead of numerals can make things easier, especially when questionable penmanship is involved. Let’s look at a few general principles. Mind you, these are indeed general. Every rule has exceptions, and various publishers will have their own take on things.

In ordinary, non-technical contexts, the CMOS “advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers.” As numbers get larger, more specific, or just too infernally long to spell, numerals are encouraged. If a number appears at the beginning of a sentence, such as the year or the number of cider donuts you had for breakfast, it should be spelled out.

When dealing with simple fractions, spell them out with appropriate hyphenation. Three-fourths of a cup is far too much syrup for one pancake. Conversely, a fraction paired with a whole number is usually best expressed in numeral form. I’ll need 2¼ tablespoons of yeast for this recipe.

Once again, these are general principles. There are dozens of other rules when it comes to writing with numbers, but I must get back to the kitchen. Custard pies get temperamental if left to their own devices in an unattended oven. Treat yourself to dinner on the “good” plates now and then, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

The Style Maven is settling into rural life, and has signed a truce with the squirrels. When she isn't trying to convince her young son that 6,872 magnetic numbers are more than enough for any reasonable family, she knits socks and thinks of ways to aggravate her editor with sugar. You can follow the ordinary adventures of her alter ego at The Procraftinator Homepage, hosted by her favorite local radio station.
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  1. I too believe that you are walking on the safe side by turning in a manuscript with numerals spelled out. Some publishers take this to extremes, even writing out gun calibers, which I think drags on what might otherwise be a taut scene, but choosing to do so is their prerogative.

  2. Who says three-fourths of a cup of syrup is too much for one pancake?

  3. Ten-and-a-half points for this post! Please note that this is one-half point over a perfect ten. :-)

  4. Isn't it totally clever? Style Maven rules! I do have a spacing question. There is no space between the 2 and 1/4? I always have a space between and wonder if I've been wrong all this time.

  5. Dani, check out the examples in CMOS-16, 9.15. It does not show a space between the whole number and the fraction.

  6. AP Style is definitely with a space. Here's a good comparison of style guides. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-write-numbers.aspx

  7. One of my pet peeves is numbers and symbols in fiction, especially dialogue. Try saying "$20" out loud. You say "Twenty dollars" not "Funny S-shaped thing and a 2 and a 0", so that's how it should be written. Kathryn, I have to disagree with you about gun calibres, too. "Nine mil"; "Point three five", please.

  8. Now, I just have to remember this!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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