April 5, 2013

Rules Have Reasons

This morning, I was reading a post from Public Policy Polling titled “Conspiracy Theory Poll Results.” The piece provides more data in support of H.L. Mencken’s famous remark that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. It summarizes a longer report in a series of bullet points.

Here is the first bullet point, with line breaks placed where they are in the original post:
  • 37% of voters believe global warming is a hoax, 51% do not. Republicans say global warming is a
    hoax by a 58-25 margin, Democrats disagree 11-77, and Independents are more split at 41-51. 61% of
    Romney voters believe global warming is a hoax

The font in the above quotation is small, but that is the case on the Public Policy Polling site. The omission of a final period also reflects the original.

In reading this passage, I ran into trouble at the end of the second line. I was reading quickly, and the exact numbers weren’t too important. In getting the sense of what was being said, 75% and 77%, for example, are pretty much the same. Anyway, I mistakenly read “41-51. 61% of” as “41-51.61% of.” This was, I suggest, an easy error to make. Of course, the next line made no sense, and my first thought was that part of the second line had been cut off. I reread the passage several times before I achieved the correct parsing.

What is the problem here? Quite simply, a rule that I thought was pretty much inviolable was violated. In fact, I am writing this post because I’ve encountered several violations of the rule lately, and I may have spotted an unfortunate trend.

Here is the rule, with examples omitted, from the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. The rule is number 9.5:
Number beginning a sentence. When a number begins a sentence, it is always spelled out. To avoid awkwardness, a sentence can often be recast.
To a degree, this rule is arbitrary. Knowing the rule, however, one finds it jarring when it is violated. The Public Policy Polling example shows that violating this rule can also present real problems for the reader.

Here’s a polling question that Public Policy Polling should test: “Do you believe that it is proper to begin a sentence with a number?” I don’t know that I want to learn the poll results on that question.

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