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Exact vs. approximate numbers

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Exact vs. approximate numbers

Postby Alan M. » Mon Sep 26, 2005 12:41 pm

I find myself in a quandary with a project I'm currently proofreading, and since I've found useful information on this board before, I thought I would dive in and see if y'all can help me directly.

What I'm finding is an inconsistency in using approximate vs. exact numbers. For example, I might come across one sentence which reads, "Over 40 members attended," and then, in another section, encounter, "67 members were surveyed."

I understand from a marketing standpoint the values of one over the other, but in a situation where marketing is negligible, what (if any) are the grammar rules governing when one or the other should be used? My guess would be, if exact numbers are known, use exact; if they are not, use approximate. This is just a guess, however.

Thanks!
Last edited by Alan M. on Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Brazilian dude » Mon Sep 26, 2005 1:15 pm

I find myself in a quandry with a project

Hey, proofread that!

I'm kidding. Welcome to the Agora.

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Postby Flaminius » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:12 pm

Welcome to the Agora, Alan. Not directly answering your question, I think a rule sometimes plays an important role that English sentences cannot be begun with Arabic numbers and symbols.

Even the speech may be attended by 43 people, writing "43 people attended the speech" is poor in style. "About" can be used to save the style as well as to gross over the unnecessary accuracy.

Stay around and post more,
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Postby tcward » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:26 pm

As a corollary to Flam's post...

The rule that I remember being taught in school was this:

--For numbers less than 100, the number must be spelled out, rather than written in numeric form. Forty-three people attended the speech.

--For numbers of 100 or more, the number should be written in numeric form. 143 people attended the speech.

I don't know if that's a universal thing, or a US thing, or what... but it's gotten me this far in life! ;)

As for the question of accuracy, that is a question better answered with another question: Who is your target audience, and what role does this data play in the story? Let your audience be your guide, and leave your data in a role appropriate to its task.

-Tim
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Postby tcward » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:28 pm

Actually, I think I just remembered another 'numbers' rule.

If the sentence begins with a number, it must always be spelled out, rather than written in numeric form.

That's using formal grammar, of course.

-Tim
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Postby Brazilian dude » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:29 pm

What? You just remembered another 'numbers' rule? What about this?

writing "43 people attended the speech" is poor in style.
(Insert an emoticon to your liking here.)

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Postby tcward » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:36 pm

Oops. Flam didn't say it loud enough.

-Tim :P
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Postby Brazilian dude » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:42 pm

You know how them Japanese tend to be soft spoken.

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Postby tcward » Mon Sep 26, 2005 2:45 pm

He probably didn't want the enemy to hear.

-Tim :shock:
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Postby Stargzer » Tue Sep 27, 2005 1:09 am

I'll issue another "Welcome!", Alan. I can't answer your original question; I suspect it's more a matter of style and content than grammar. That is, what are you trying to communicate? After all, 67 is a 67.5% increase over 40, which makes it a good bit away from "about 40" in my book. Also, from the context you give, the numbers are not related, other than their being descriptive of "members."

I was going to post this link earlier, but felt it didn't answer your question. However, others have been discoursing on grammar rules that I suspect are really more a matter of style than grammar. Here is how one behemonth close to my heart (and even closer to my paycheck) deals with numbers, in more detail than you probably want to know. :)

In particular, note this section from the GPO (Government Printing Office) Style Manual reference above:

NUMBERS SPELLED OUT

12.16. Spell out numerals at the beginning of a sentence or
head. Rephrase a sentence or head to avoid beginning with
figures. (See rule 12.25 for related numbers.)

Five years ago * * *; not 5 years ago * * *
Five hundred and fifty men hired * * *; not 550 men hired
* * *
``Five-Year Plan Announced''; not ``5-Year Plan
Announced'' (head)
The year 1965 seems far off * * *; not 1965 seems far off
* * *
Workers numbering 207,843 * * *; not 207,843 Workers * *
*
Benefits of $69,603,566 * * *; not $69,603,566 worth of
benefits * * *

1958 report change to the 1958 report

$3,000 budgeted change to the sum of $3,000 budgeted

4 million jobless change to jobless number 4 million


So, we see that Uncle Sam's printers say to spell out numbers at the beginning of a sentence or heading or else re-write the sentence/headline to move the number.

The GPO Style Manual gives no guidance to using exact vs. approximate numbers. As I said before, it's all in what you are trying to convey. You can be even more vague by using adjectives such as "most," "many," "more," and "some" and avoiding numbers altogether! :wink:
Regards//Larry

"To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them."
-- Attributed to Richard Henry Lee
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Postby Flaminius » Tue Sep 27, 2005 2:46 am

tcward wrote:Oops. Flam didn't say it loud enough.

-Tim :P


I did not hesitate to say, "Well come Alan" out loud.
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Postby Alan M. » Tue Sep 27, 2005 10:06 am

Thanks for the feedback and the welcome, everyone! Your answers pretty much sum up what I thought; that I should make it up as I go along. ;) (The rule I wound up adopting, if you're curious, is that any number below 100 should be exact; above 100 and we can use generalities. Hey, it makes as much sense as anything else!)

Oh, and brazillian dude, I don't know what you're talking about; that sentence looks fine to me in my post! :D

...gotta love the revisionist history of the web...
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Postby Brazilian dude » Tue Sep 27, 2005 10:15 am

I was talking to Tim, Alan.

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Postby M. Henri Day » Tue Sep 27, 2005 1:31 pm

tcward wrote:...

The rule that I remember being taught in school was this:

--For numbers less than 100, the number must be spelled out, rather than written in numeric form. Forty-three people attended the speech.

--For numbers of 100 or more, the number should be written in numeric form. 143 people attended the speech.


I remember a somewhat more relaxed rule, where numbers up to (and sometimes including) 10 were to be written with letters in the body of a text, larger ones written with Arabic numerals, but, as Tim mentions in a later posting, always written out with letters at the beginning of a sentence....

Henri
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Postby Brazilian dude » Tue Sep 27, 2005 2:15 pm

Ain't coincidences funny?

Brasileiros estão acima do peso

88 milhões de brasileiros estão acima do peso, obesidade é coisa séria. Se você gosta de comer tanto quanto eu, vamos nos preservar para podermos continuar...


88 million Brazilians are overweight, obesity is a serious thing. If you like to eat as much as I do, let's preserve ourselves so we can go on...

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