Why Can’t I Start a Sentence With a Numeral?

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Here’s a sentence for you to ponder:

1968 was no year for a catching of the breath.

This is a no-no, because you’re not supposed to start a sentence with a numeral. Because of this rule, here’s how that sentence is rendered in Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties:

Nineteen sixty-eight was no year for a catching of the breath.

That sure looks dumb to me. But hey, rules are rules. Whatcha gonna do? I say: change the rule. For one thing, I don’t know where this “rule” came from. Who invented it? Why do we follow it? For example, what’s wrong with the following sentence, which is a pretty common formulation?

69 percent of Americans believe the earth is getting warmer due to human activity. That drops to 23 percent among Republicans.

That seems perfectly readable to me, whereas spelling out sixty-nine doesn’t. That’s because we’re not used to seeing large numbers spelled out, since it’s never done anywhere else. Note that if we abolished this rule it would also solve the idiotic workaround of things like, “Seven in ten Americans believe the earth is getting warmer.” That solves the copy-editing problem, but makes the entire story hard to read and less accurate. Writers end up switching back and forth between percentages and fractions, which is confusing as hell.

Please note that none of this applies to small numbers, which have their own rule: numbers from 0-12 are generally spelled out, while larger numbers are rendered in numerals. So you’d never see, for example, “3 of my friends are coming over to visit.”

Change the rule! Change the rule! Who do I see about doing this?

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

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