LESSONS FROM THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: NUMBERS

I wanted to get to learn the technique of the theater so well that I could then forget about it. I always feel it’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.

T.S. Eliot

There are a few major style guides, but most are highly specialized. For long-form fiction the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), which is a book every author must own, is pretty much our only guide, and warts and all it’s all the style guide you’ll ever need.

It can be a dense book—intimidating for anyone—and as such it’s most useful if you’re honest with yourself about the limitations of your own knowledge of the craft. If you’re “pretty sure” something is correct, or “think you remember the rule,” go here and check. You might be right, or you might learn something. Either way it’s a win for your writing.

As an editor I see certain mistakes made so many times I’ve actually put together a “Common Comments” file so I can copy and paste in a description of the same edits I make in one manuscript after another. In this open-ended series of posts, we’ll look at some of those common mistakes and go to the Chicago Manual of Style for answers.

So here’s this week’s entry from my Common Comments file:

 

Spell out most whole numbers, especially anything under a hundred.

 

This is not, admittedly, a very good bit of advice, since it includes the unexplained word “most.” Though you would see this, if I were your editor, as a comment embedded in your manuscript referring to a specific edit, let’s get deeper into how to handle numbers in fiction . . . most of the time.

Here’s where I got that from, which the CMS calls “Chicago’s general rule—zero through one hundred. (9.2):

In nontechnical contexts, [read: fiction of any genre including science fiction] Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers. Most of the rest of this chapter deals with the exceptions to this rule and special cases.

Digging in deeper, we’ll start with this example:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the thousands dead, only twenty-two of them were orcs. He never would have imagined that on his twentieth birthday he’d have survived sixty-three battles. This was the worst, though. The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063. Fifty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and forty lay dead, not counting the elves.

Okay, so let’s break that down.

First of all that example was the correct form. This is how I often see the same thing rendered in manuscripts:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the 1000’s dead, only 22 of them were orcs. He never would have imagined that on his 20th birthday he’d have survived 63 battles. This was the worst, though. The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063. 59,840 lay dead, not counting the elves.

First of all, in that second, incorrect example, note the apostrophe in 1000’s. This is another shockingly common mistake. The apostrophe indicates possessive, so that sentence says that something belongs to 1000. The numerical form of thousands is 1000s. This is also true of years: 1980s, not 1980’s—the latter indicating that something belongs to 1980.

Breaking the example down by rule:

Galen looked over the battlefield and among the thousands dead,

This from rule 9.4, but honestly I think it’s just obvious. You’re not being specific here, just some number in the thousands, but using the arabic numerals tends to imply that accuracy matters. Especially when accuracy doesn’t matter, spell it out.

only twenty-two of them were orcs and he’d have survived sixty-three battles

For this, refer to the chart on page 376 under: number, spelled out, which shows the hyphen between twenty and two.

He never would have imagined that on his twentieth birthday

This from 9.6 Ordinals. This w follows the general rule of spelling out numbers between zero and a hundred, then reverting to arabic numbers for things like 217th.

The death toll was still being counted, but had already surpassed the Haven’s Ford Massacre of 1063.

One of the few places you’ll actually probably ever use arabic numerals is when you specify a year. That rule is found in:

9.3 The year alone. Years are expressed in numerals unless they stand at the beginning of a sentence, in which case rewording may be a better option.

I agree with the latter sentiment there, so as to avoid: Ten sixty-three had the highest death toll, in the Haven’s Ford Massacre.

And that leads to the last bit:

Fifty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and forty lay dead, not counting the elves.

Though we just saw that numbers larger than one hundred should be rendered in arabic numerals, there’s a rule that trumps that:

9.5 Number beginning a sentence. When a number begins a sentence, it is always spelled out.

And then let me add one extra bit of warning. In a science fiction novel, in which the technology likely exists to get an accurate count of the dead, that exact number (59,840) might be appropriate. But still, stating it like that in description feels too journalistic for me. I’d recommend something like “maybe sixty thousand” (spelled out in accordance with 9.2: “and certain round multiples of those numbers”). In fantasy, where we’re expecting people to have a sort of medieval level of science and mathematics and statistics, that precise number tends to come off as anachronistic.

Anyway . . . Numbers in creative writing? Terrible!

I know, but there it is.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to LESSONS FROM THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: NUMBERS

  1. Wordfyre says:

    Fifty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and forty commas lay dead, not counting the apostrophes.

    • hughti says:

      Did the double quotes survive because someone had their back?

      • Wordfyre says:

        Yes, indeed. The reason being that the double quotes were of the smart variety, each having their counterparts’ backs. When the smoke cleared, each side suffered heavy losses but the apostrophe total death toll was nearly impossible to calculate due to their possessive and somewhat contractual nature of taking down the word they clung to at the time of their demise. I hope this clarifies these tragic results. Can’t we all just get along?

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