Why do people (people) put numbers (numbers) in parentheses?

(An interesting note: This has become the most-read blog I have posted. It is also the most-commented blog I have posted with 75 comments. Thousands of people have read it, and it has been the subject of searches tens of thousands of times.) I occasionally re-read it, and I stand by my assertions here.)

I was reading an application for a grant program at our local library recently when I encountered a series of phrases that were couched in terminology that just set me afire with curiosity.

The author, who is a colleague of mine, had put Arabic numerals in parentheses after each mention of a number. For example:

The application shall be completed in three (3) parts, and with three (3) copies to be turned in by June 30, 2012.

I have always been irritated by this style of writing because it seems so insulting. Does the author think I’m stupid? Or do they think that I don’t know my numbers?

Where does this come from? Why do people (people) do this (this)?

I looked it up on Wikipedia, and I searched around the Interwebs a bit to find the source of the style, and it seems to be based in legal terminology, though even that seems specious. There is no law that says that you have to put numbers (numbers) in parentheses, nor is there any law that says that you have to assume that people don’t know their numbers.

Curiously, there is legal precedent that defines which of two entries of a number – the written-out version or the numerical version – is considered the valid one in the event that the two don’t agree (as when written on a check). The answer is that the written-out version is the one that banks accept as the correct version, and not the numeric entry. So, if the written version is the legal version, then we don’t even need the numerical version.

So, why do people do this? I don’t have any idea (idea).

Are these the same people who think that the word “paradigm” is a useful word, or those who use “myself” when they mean “me”?

I say it’s dumb (dumb), and it’s time to stop doing it (it). Because it’s really insulting (insulting) and we don’t need numbers (numbers) in parentheses. Ever (ever).

Here’s a suggestion: if you are tempted to put numbers in parentheses after putting them in words, just don’t do it. Instead, use the Chicago Manual of Style technique. Numbers from one to ten should be written-out as words. From eleven onward, put them as Arabic numerals. That’s simple, and it makes written numbers easier to read.

Thank you (you) for reading my blog (blog).

Addendum July 12, 2017:

Today I had an great idea! What if we put numbers as Arabic numerals, then follow them with Roman numerals? Here is an example:

Please ship 23 (XXIII) tantalum capacitors and 9 (IX) paper capacitors to my new address in Munich…

Does this seem absurd? To me it’s no more absurd that putting the numbers as words after the numerals, or numerals after words. Think it over.

 

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is a Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He is currently Visiting Professor at Hochschule München where he teaches in the Druck- und Medientechnik program. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
This entry was posted in Curmudgeon, Language and grammar, Mistakes you can avoid and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

77 Responses to Why do people (people) put numbers (numbers) in parentheses?

  1. Yep, it’s annoying, but your colleague isn’t necessarily the guilty party. It’s very possible that the grant program told him “that’s how we do it, in case we get audited/we get sued/somebody files late, or forgets to put the original in with the copies, or forgets to fill out all three parts . . .”.

    It’s a hedge against failure modes, man. Bummer. (not my usual lingo)

    I stumbled across your blog (short for web-log—why don’t we spell it “’blog”?) from the link Jennifer Bell at ProSoft put up. Congrats on recovering those images.

    ECS

  2. amanda says:

    I know you wrote this a while ago, but you have absolutely nailed how I feel about my new boss. She writes all her numbers twice (2). Nuts (nuts) nuts).

    And I bet she would totally use “paradigm.”

    And she keeps using “comprise of” and we don’t even work in real estate!

    Thanks for the vent.

  3. David says:

    I find this really annoying as well. I have searched the web several times for a logical explanation. I assumed there must be one, but it appears there is not. Thanks for stating it so plainly.

    One other point — I was always taught that numbers should also be written-out whenever they appear as the first word in a sentence.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      This past week we were told at the university that each student would receive four (4) tickets for guests at graduation. I cringed as I read this (this). Why, oh why do people persist in reiterating numbers? Do they think we’re stupid? Do we need to be told twice that we can bring only four guests?

      I think that most style manuals would agree on the concept of spelling numbers at the beginning of sentences. It would be awkward to see a set of numerals at the beginning of a sentence.

      Thank you for your comment. You and I can now cringe together (together).

      Brian

  4. Kristy says:

    I put numbers in parentheses after each written numeral as I know the documents I work on will be audited and my email correspondance can be used as evidence in my line of work.

    Having written many laboratory procedural documents, the numeral is what people read (a quick reference) the text is when they want to double check that the numeral is correct.

    ie One (1) g – Chemical X

    If they see: One (10) g – they know the typo is in the numeral and discount it, if they see Onn (1) g, they know the typo is in the word.

    This is not because I believe people are stupid. This is because I know that I am fallible and I find it safer to provide a self checking mechanism into my work against any errors that may occur.

    Knowing that I could cause someone serious injury by mistyping a quantity in a procedure is enough reason to ignore any slight irritation the practice may incur.

    I do not do this in my personal email or other form of correspondence.

    Maybe it should be seen as the person wanting to ensure you are well informed, or that you are protected against their own mistakes rather than as a slight against your ability.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Thank you, Kristy, for your comment.

      How do you know that the reader will assume the error to be the number in parentheses, and not the word?

      What if it says: Place Ten (11) mg. of ricin in the subject’s coffee?

      Is it ten, or eleven?

      I appreciate the idea that you are doing this in the interest of clarity, but I don’t think it adds clarity.

      Wouldn’t it be better just to be sure your numerals are correct?

      Brian

      • K.G. says:

        Because people make mistakes, and in some fields that can be quite problematic – the knowledge that there IS a discrepancy can be important. In many scientific fields, as well as in regards to the law, a single number can prove exceedingly important if mistaken. I’m not sure who couldn’t understand that for themselves, only a moron would respond with “why can’t you just make sure you never, ever, EVER make a mistake?!”

        • Brandon says:

          As Brian pointed out, what if it says ten (11)? Which one is correct? The only scenario where adding the number provides clarity is one in which the text is already correct. When it’s not correct (or the arabic numeral is not correct) it is entirely pointless. When they are both correct it is even more pointless.

          I think it’s a bit harsh to say only a moron would say to never make a mistake. The flipside of that is that only a moron would not double check their numbers for accuracy.

          As an engineer I never, EVER rely on double typing my numbers for accuracy. I instead type them a single time and then check them for accuracy.

          This is a useless activity that I refuse to participate in.

        • Ethan says:

          K.G. your logic is rock solid, and the exact reason why I make it a practice to use both words and numbers when corresponding with clients and contractors (I am an architect). Assuming that I am perfect and will not make a mistake would be foolish. If I make a mistake with a written quantity it can cost people time and money, so by writing both it provides an extra means of checking for accuracy for every pair of eyes that views it.

          I believe the people who take offense to this practice might be a tad insecure that they would assume the purpose behind it is an lack of confidence in their intelligence.

          • Brian Lawler says:

            Dear Ethan,

            I guess I’m “a tad insecure” that I think duplicating numbers in parentheses is dumb. So be it!

            I stand by my argument. Putting numbers (numbers) in text twice is unnecessary. We can have different opinions on this (this).

            Thank you for your comment,

            Brian P. Lawler

    • Kinbote says:

      I’d see errors coming from two (2) sources: typos and brain farts.

      For the first source, it’s really easy to mistype numerals because of how they’re laid out on the keyboard, but I would say it’s borderline impossible to mistype a spelled-out number in such a way that it will be interpreted as a different number.

      For the second source, if, say, ’57’ somehow gets transposed to ’75’ in someone’s brain sometime between reading the number from the original and typing it into their document, chances are they’re going to write wrong twice because that’s what’s in their head.

      So by spelling out the numbers you’ve already avoided errors from the first source and are only introducing uncertainty by adding the unreliable digits, and you still have no protection against errors from the second source.

      • Brian Lawler says:

        I am intrigued by your comments, but I don’t buy it. Most people aren’t stupid. We all make mistakes, but we make mistakes in both words and numbers. Why (why) don’t (don’t) we (we) put (put) words (words) in parentheses to double-state them in case someone mis-reads them?

        I find it absurd that an instruction sheet tells me to take four (4) screws and put them into four (4) holes in the cabinet side. Give me a break! Just tell me to to put the four screws in the cabinet and be done with it.

        Am I going to try to put five (5) screws in four (4) screw holes?

        It’s dumb, and I continue to assert that I don’t think we need to do this. So, let’s all stop. Today.

        • Kinbote says:

          Yeah, I’m agreeing that it’s redundant. Spelled-out numbers are not going to get typoed in a way that would make one number be mistaken for another, and using the double entry method, if someone’s thinking the wrong number when they enter it, they’ll just enter it wrong twice. The only result that’s likely from the double entry method is that someone occasionally mistypes the digit, in which case they’ve only added confusion, not confidence.

          So not only is it ugly and insulting to the reader, but it’s likely to create the problem it’s meant to solve.

        • Maj says:

          I write the number and use parentheses, not because the reader is ‘dumb’, but it is formal and signifies a word that can also be written in a numerical expression. The parentheses indicate a number, rather than a misspelling, a homonym, or other. Accuracy and clarity.

          The reason you don’t put words in parentheses to double write them is because there’s no alternate way to write that word. There’s not a number sequence that you pronounce the same way. For example, “for” is a homonym of four – but 4 (the number) doesn’t mean “for”.

          • Brian Lawler says:

            Dear Maj,

            I accept your response, but still argue that it’s largely unnecessary for normal writing and reading to repeat the numbers. It’s usually awkward, and it always interrupts the flow of reading.

            Best wishes,

            Brian P. Lawler

    • Andrew says:

      (3) Year old post on a (4) year old thread, but I’d like to add my two (2) cents because I believe it’s pretty intuitive. I don’t know when I started doing it or if I even picked it up anywhere. I manage a number of science labs and will generally use this when writing protocols or making inventories. I believe it provides any easier method or referencing when your set-ups/inventories contain some essential but possibly extraneous information, with regard to the actual action of setting up and organizing a lab.

      When you’re looking at a long list of chemicals in a dense protocol, you’ve already looked at the name of the chemical and where it is located. But now you’ve looked away to obtain the chemicals, or place them in the correct location, or something. Depending on your formatting, you now just want to be able to glance back and access the quantity of reagent or supply needed. Having quantities in parentheses, for me, makes it easier to quickly glance and access that quantitative information, when the name of the reagent, notes on placement, etc. are already known and have become a nuisance, visually.

      • Brian Lawler says:

        Hi Andrew,

        This sounds logical. But do you repeat the numbers? Or do you just put the numbers in parens?

        What irks me, and is the topic of my blog, is the unnecessary repetition of numbers with parenthetical numbers.

        Brian P. Lawler

  5. Robert Nunn says:

    My unsubstantiated guess is that the practice is a carry-over from the days when documents were hand written or forms with blanks that were filled in by hand. Poor handwriting might make the written part illegible, but using only Arabic numerals might be subject to alteration. Combining the two would presumably solve both problems. Its definitely an unnecessary irritation in a modern document.

  6. Jordan Smith says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. I find the whole parentheses thing really annoying as well, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject.

    Just one correction: Chicago’s rule is to spell out numbers from zero to one hundred (see 9.2), not just from one to ten like you mentioned. It’s AP style that recommends spelling out whole numbers below ten.

  7. Nancy says:

    I am so with you on this! And how about those people who insist on using acronyms for everything? And they make up their own acronyms, and you don’t know what they mean? These are probably often the same people!

  8. Michael says:

    I agree that it is totally unnecessary to include the Arabic numeral after the written number. I tend to use initial-isms in my work emails and documents. Typically they are titles and used by many in the department. Though when I write a document to be published formally I’ll write the title in its entirety the first time with the initial-ism in parenthesizes immediately following. From this point on in the document I’ll use the initial-ism when referring to the title.

  9. Eugene says:

    From past experiences:

    If someone uses a search function in a browser or a word document, do they use numerals or the spelling version? A reader might search with the wrong term if both aren’t written, consequently leading him/her to an wrong decision. Having both solves that problem. Especially, when different writing styles have different guiding principles on when to use numerals or when to spell out a number.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      I disagree. If you duplicate numbers so that they can be searched, why not duplicate everything in the document so it can be searched?

      Aren’t we humans smarter than that?

      The use of duplicated parenthetical numbers is just plain dumb, and we can all stop doing it now.

      My humble (humble) opinion (opinion).

      Brian

  10. Jonathan says:

    I (Jonathan) think (believe) that we should (ought) to (2) start (begin) to add numbers (digits) after Roman numerals, such as Section (part) IV (4). After all, people (y’all) do make mistakes (errors) writing (typing) those too (also).

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      I (Brian) agree (believe) that you have made me laugh (chuckle). Thank you for your input on this timely matter.

      I recently attended a 50th anniversary event where the T shirt said WHAMOBASS L. In parens, it added (50) which also made me chuckle.

      Brian

  11. Nicole says:

    I always thought it was to draw attention to specific quantities given in a contract so that you didn’t have to peruse the entire text looking for the specifics. If it’s written out and the number is put in parenthesis then that form’s a specific visual pattern that makes it very easy for the reader to identify the key quantities. Now I’m an engineer, not a lawyer, but I have some experience writing scope packages and I’ve used the number in parenthesis as a tool to identify a key quantity and draw attention to it.

  12. Stefano says:

    I wonder how many people spell out large numbers and then put the numerals in parentheses. I suspect that most people who spell out numbers and then put the corresponding numeral in parentheses do not spell out large numbers. They simply write the numerals!

    Example: The population of the town is forty-six thousand, two hundred and sixty-three (46,263). I bet most people wouldn’t write this.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Stefano,

      Common style manuals like AP and Chicago suggest that numbers from one to ten be spelled-out, and that numbers larger than ten be typed as numerals.

      I follow that style ten times out of 11.

      Brian

  13. Charlie Furr says:

    I have no hard evidence for this, but I suspect the numerals in parenthesis are a hang over from handwritten documents, in which it would have been easy to misinterprete the written word, particularly in legal documents (hence the inertia of the legal profession maybe?)

  14. Laura says:

    Thanks for making my day – you made me laugh! The reason I did a web search on this is because my boss always does this in her writing. She also always says “myself” instead of “me”.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Laura,

      Thank you for making ME laugh! Myself enjoys getting responses to my blog. I have received nine (9) or ten (10) replies this month alone on this topic, so I know that it’s an irritant to many people.

      I just took a flight on U.S. Airways where a sign told me I could carry one (1) carry-on bag on the plane.

      I was relieved to read that sign, because I wasn’t sure what “one” meant, and having the number 1 follow it in parentheses made it SO much clearer.

      They also told us that we could pick-up our checked bags in the terminal after we deplaned. This announcement came, of course, after we had enplaned (I guess).

      Best wishes to you!

      Myself
      Brian P. Lawler

  15. Aiden says:

    As an attorney who drafts contracts upon contracts, I do this on a daily basis. And with good reason! As one of the previous comments said, its for clarity in case there’s a typo. If a contract or other document specifies a dollar amount or a number of days that someone has to do something, a number written just numerically could easily be transposed. If the parties end up disputing the number in a legal action, the number as it is written out is that one that controls. So if the parties agreed to a purchase price of $153,000, but it was typed out mistakenly as $15300, that would be a big difference. But “one hundred fifty-three thousand dollars ($15300)” means its more likely than not that the amount was supposed to be the number as its written out, so that’s the one that will be honored. It’s for clarity and to avoid any potential ambiguity, not because we think people are stupid and can’t read numbers. Lawyers like to overkill everything, even if it seems stupid or redundant to do so. But its a CYA thing for us and our clients.

    Stefano, I would ABSOLUTELY write that the population is forty-six thousand, two hundred and sixty-three (46,263). If the context called for it, of course.

    That’s why us lawyers do it, at least. Can’t tell you why anybody else would. I certainly dont do that in my civilian life!

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Aidan’s comments are greatly appreciated. I understand why lawyers would enter the numbers as both words and numbers in parentheses.

      OK. That’s fine.

      But why does U.S Airways say: “You are allowed one (1) carry-on bag, and one (1) personal item on board.” This, I contend, is REALLY SILLY. You are allowed one, just one statement of a number on a sign. We do not need two (2) statements of numbers on a sign.

      We’re not stupid; we know that one means one.

      Thank you,

      Brian

  16. Erin says:

    I am late to this party, but this post and these comments have made my day. This is the most ridiculous practice ever, regardless of your occupation.

    I consistently read the numeral in parentheses in the whisper voice of Brick from The Middle when he used to whisper-repeat everything he said. This at least makes the repetition easier to deal with.

  17. Paul says:

    The response from attorney Aiden makes sense and I can see using two forms of a number in some types of legal documents, particularly for big numbers. And there is an element of logic in the argument that numbers are used because they’re quick to read and absorb, while words are far more “safe”. A small error expressing “75” as “57” may be impossible to catch, but the meaning of “sevetny-five” is still clear, despite containing essentially the same error. But the use of words and numbers is far too common and in many cases just ridiculous and, as many people have expressed, really irritating. I don’t even entirely buy the argument that it should be done because numbers can be extremely important, even critical. I was a commercial pilot. Aviation manuals never use two forms, even though a transposition of digits or being “off” by one number could be the difference between life and death, in countless different ways. We had a better system — getting it right and not duplicating information as an excuse for sloppiness.

  18. Kathy says:

    I am reading this because it also drives me crazy, and while I have an “explanation” for it, I wondered if there was a different (possibly more accurate) one. Typewriters (and I’m old enough to have used them, even non-electric ones!), prior to the more “modern” ones (if I can say that, since no one uses typewriters at all anymore), didn’t have different fonts. Also, they either they didn’t have a key for all of the numbers from 0 to 9, and so they used the letter L (lower case) for the number one. I can’t remember what other substitutes there may have been, possibly using the letter O for zero. Anyway, because using the letter as the number could be confusing, they both spelled 10 and wrote the Arabic number, and put one of them in parentheses–I forget which. “Ten (l0) or l0 (ten).” The Arabic number ten looks more like the word “lo”. If the number was 100, someone might mistake it for a reference to the bathroom (“loo”). Using Roman numerals could’ve solved all that! Okay, so I don’t know if they did that double-number thing for all numbers, or just those with the number one involved. Anyway, it was a habit that was so ingrained that it stuck even after new typewriters were designed with keys for 0-9. And yet people still continue doing it to this day (darn it!) even though they don’t use typewriters and they have no idea why they are doing it!

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Apologies for not replying sooner. I was at Burning Man again this year, and there was a huge typewriter out on the Playa. I jumped from key to key, spelling out my name (the typewriter didn’t actually work, though).

      I, too, am a victim of the manual typewriter, having taken business classes as a young teen (at my father’s insistence). We had to type in time to music on training typewriters that had no printing on the keys!

      And, there was no numeral 1, so we used the lower-case l for ones. It was awful.

      I did meet some nice girls in that class, though! They taught me how to type better.

      Best wishes,

      Brian P. Lawler

  19. Don says:

    I’m late to the party too, but I agree completely that the practice of repeating numbers is just silly; a great example of legalese run amok. But even the legal reason offered earlier is specious: for one thing, if there’s a potential problem writing numerals, then don’t write them at all, and certainly don’t write “One (1) bag only” in an airport sign, where there can be no chance of numerical dyslexia. Also, if lawyers are so worried about the consequences of a typo, shouldn’t they repeat everything? For example, why don’t they then write a legal instruction “To buy one house (dwelling)” to prevent a spelling error that would make the sentence “To buy one horse”?

    This kind of silliness in our modern written language goes further than the “One (1) bag only” example. See the screaming capitals and bad grammar in disclaimers, such as “BECAUSE THE PROGRAM IS LICENSED FREE OF CHARGE, THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM”. Is upper case (and repetition) somehow more exact and less prone to error than lower case? Or consider the flow-on effect of our helping computers do their job. To ensure computers order their dates correctly in, say, file names, good practice writes numbers in those file names with the maximum number of digits they’ll ever have (i.e. 2 digits for a date), making the first day of the month “01”. This “01” makes sense when written for current computers, which tend to follow unsophisticated rules for ordering strings of characters and so need the zero; but the fad has caught on, and now many people write their dates as “01 May” instead of either “1” or “1st”, even when there’s no computer in sight. Some magazines now number their pages 01, 02, etc. I’ve even seen pages numbered 001, 002. And some airports write “Gate 01” instead of “Gate 1”. Have they forgotten that leading zeroes don’t count, and no computer will ever need to scan their gate signage? Also, computers that print “01” instead of “1” do so sometimes purely due to programmers who think “01” is more correct; and so the cycle perpetuates.

    I think the use of irritating writing ultimately has nothing to do with legalese, and even very little to do with computers. It probably has more to do with the fact that such writing catches our eye, in the same primal way that humans have evolved to notice anything out of the ordinary as a possible threat to their existence. We have a herd instinct that tells us to go with the flow, and if the flow looks weird, we’ll blindly follow it anyway, and assume there must be an underlying good reason for the weirdness. I think this encourages some to deliberately create stuff that looks weird. The idea has caught on that bad grammar that catches our eye must have been carefully and deliberately crafted to be more “correct” or “legal” than normal writing, which makes it “Important” with a capital I. So, write “one (1)”, use screaming capitals, replace a simple word such as “buy” with “purchase”, invent a strange concoction such as “on-sell” to replace “sell”; then remove almost all commas, and repeat words and phrases in tedious ways. If a lawyer argues that such poor writing is more correct, then I can only hope that such a misleading level of argument is never applied in a court case. Unfortunately, too often it is.

    Lastly, I don’t think a rule like “all numbers below ten should be written in full, and others as numerals” should be rigidly adhered to. Writing numbers as numerals can be about visual recognition, such as “The first digit of pi is 3”, or “Consider adding 3 and 5 to make 8”. We can mentally process these sentences quickly when we see digits instead of written numbers.

  20. david says:

    How many times have you written the wrong date? Not any more for me. From now on it is September Sixteenth (16), two thousand fifteen (2015). Lawyers… wake up and take action on this!

    • Lew says:

      I’m a little confused as to the month you are referring. Shouldn’t that be “September (9) Sixteenth (16), two thousand fifteen (2015)?”

      • Brian Lawler says:

        Hi Lew,

        Gosh! I’m sorry! I should have been more clear on that. It was indeed September (9) Sixteenth (16), etc.

        I saw a new variation on this absurdity recently at the university when I received a memo that had the numbers presented this way:

        You will send two (2) and one-half (1/2) ounces of antimatter to the Provost’s office with your application.

        I just love the things that people do to clarify (clarify) their texts.

        Brian P. Lawler

  21. Brian Lawler says:

    Hi folks!

    This is by far my most popular blog of all time. Thank you all for your comments.

    This morning I encountered one of the dumbest applications of numbers-in-parentheses that I have ever seen. It came from Tivo, the makers of the wonderful television control boxes. It reads like this:

    For purchases through any other retail sales channel, your initial service subscription will be a Year-Included Plan, which subsequently will roll over automatically into successive annual service plans at the then-published rate (currently $149.99/year, plus any applicable taxes).1 Upon activation, you will have the option of upgrading your service subscription to an All-In Plan, for a one (1)-time payment at the then-published All-In Plan upgrade rate (which currently is $599.99, plus any applicable taxes).4

    I couldn’t believe that they interrupted the one-time payment phrase with the number 1 in parentheses. How Stupid Do We Look To You? Are we so dumb that we don’t know the meaning of the number one?

    Can everyone just stop this nonsense? Please?

    Brian

  22. David says:

    Whenever I see two(2) numbers, one written and one numeral in parentheses, I assume the author wants me to multiply them. So, ten(10) is actually 100. 😉

  23. Lew says:

    I always knew that the written out number on a check took precedence over the numerals if they happen to be different so I have never really been bothered by people duplicating their numbers with a numeral in parentheses after it being written out. Recently, I received an e-mail from a friend where he ONLY put the numeral in the e-mail, but he still put it within parentheses. I guess he thinks that you don’t need to have the number duplicated in text and numerals, but still believes that numerals must be enclosed in parentheses. Very strange!

    For the record, I was taught that numbers less than (and not including) 10 should be written out and numerals should be used for anything greater than nine. (I am so tempted to put a “9” after the word, but I’ll refrain from it!)

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Lew,

      I follow the style of Chicago on numbers, typing them as words from one to ten, then I switch to numerals. That’s quite common and agreed upon by most writer’s guides. It makes things consistent.

      Best wishes,

      Brian P. Lawler

  24. Mr_Bonc says:

    As an engineer, I regularly spell out most to all of my numbers. If an engineering number or quantity is wrong, this could be a matter of life and death. If an aircraft part I designed is made from a single listed number versus having the immediate check of the spelled out number, an error may be avoided. Its not fool proof, as nothing is, but for the fools responding saying they are offended by such a practice are exactly that, foolish. There are plenty of other things for you to worry about, hopefully you don’t worry about what the maximum stress on a support beam on a jet aircraft is, or if the number had a typo which might have been avoided by this method.

    One last thing, for those so insulted by such a trivial practice that is easy to read thru. How many of you critics only list the number value on a check and don’t write out the actual value on the check to aid in an accounting error. I doubt most of the complainers on here only list the numbers. Hypocritical, but I bet I’m correct on that one (1).

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Dear Mr. Bonc,

      Am I to believe that you put printed numbers – one, two, three – and parenthetical numerals (1,2,3) on your engineering drawings? That seems absurd.

      I stand my ground on this, and continue to argue that is a silly practice to put numbers twice on documents.

      Brian P. Lawler

    • Peter says:

      I’m an engineer too, and I *HATE* this practice because in the modern era it actually causes errors.

      It is 2017 (Happy New Year!), the best way to avoid errors is to automate, automate, automate. I use VBA programming to double check all the quantities and such in my final documents against the calc sheets.

      Unfortunately, the company standard is for the stupid parenthetical numbers. Which means my macro ends up telling me ALL of the quantities are wrong because “One (1)” does not actually equal “1” and so on. Which means I am stuck visually double-checking my quantities, which, IMHO is not really double-checking at all. It’s just two opportunities to screw up.

      Why can’t I just use the numeral? People can read it.

      • Teddy Scralo says:

        I’ve always understood it to clarify or confirm the quantity of something rated with a number, especially in engineering and technical writing. This prevents the two numerals from being mistaken as one number. Such as Two (2) 50 Ton Air Conditioning Units, which could be mistaken for Two 250 Ton Air Conditioning Units (Which would be written as Two (2) 250 Ton Air Conditioning Units). Now, to be congruent within a sentence or document, you would continue to clarify quantities with parenthesis, even if it is describing something without a number. Such as: Included are Two (2) 2 Pole Breakers, Five (5) 480V Disconnects, and Fifty (50) widgets.

        That being said, I don’t believe that all numbers in technical writing should be put in parentheses. If Two (2) 50 Ton Air Conditioning Units are going to be installed first, and Two (2) 250 Ton Air Conditioning Units are going to be installed two weeks later; there is no need to specify two (2) weeks later. Doing so is too specific to represent a standalone two (2)… 😉

        • Brian Lawler says:

          Hi Teddy,

          That’s also my understanding, but I assert that it’s not necessary. If it provides clarity to anyone, then fine, but in most cases, putting the numbers in twice is silly.

          Thank you for your comment.

          Brian P. Lawler

  25. Brian P. Lawler says:

    In the latest installment of this silly topic, I recently encountered another document at the university where the spelled-out number was in parentheses, and the numeral were not:

    Send 3 (three) copies of the form A110A to the Provost’s office.

    I hadn’t seen that one before. And, a day later I encountered this fine example:

    Start by choosing (3) candidates, and then pass those candidates’ names to the Dean’s office with form 117A.

    Don’t bother with the spelled-out version, but put all numerals in parentheses!

    Never makes any sense to me!

    Brian

    • Em says:

      What’s really annoying about these is not so much that the writer thinks we (the readers) are dumb but that they have so confidently and so thoughtlessly proceeded with their ridiculous approach. It makes me want to shake them and say “what are you thinking!?”

  26. Jack Day, CMfgE says:

    I stumbled onto this discussion while questioning one of my own writing habits. My sixty-five years of written communication have covered handwriting, cursive, type-writers, printing, publishing, engineering drawings, dot-matrix printing, etc. Somewhere along the line, I picked up the habit of putting quantity numerals in parenthesis. I’m not sure who, what, or where the directive to do that came from, because (65) years of instruction is difficult to filter through. Not one of my thousands of readers ever complained about my habit, or attempted to correct me; so I suppose the expression didn’t confuse them. Today it seems unusual, so I’ll break the habit. I’m still curious about where it may have originated.

  27. CM says:

    It is not efficient, it is not error-correcting nor does it prevent misunderstanding. It is pretentious, and people only do it to appear more important and sophisticated.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      I (I) appreciate your comments (comments) about the topic of putting numbers (numbers) in parentheses (parentheses).

      Best (best) wishes (wishes),

      Brian P. Lawler

  28. MichelMunier says:

    I came to this blog really searching for when to spell a number or use its arabic form. ( I got two (2)! good answers 1) (1) Spell 1~10 and 2) (Two) or (two) 1~100. I like to ramble on with diaries writing and felt uncomfortable writing digit in my text. So now I have a better idea.
    But this blog is quite interesting and shows the colour (color) of our mix society.
    I personally (myself) prefer people who are not so categorical and think of different situations where such use may be legit and useful.
    Certainly in scientific field of writing I believe an extra version of the number is for the least helpful, and I think, visually often a bonus.
    Then I must (myself) admit that I don’t remember coming across repetition of spelling and digit in text, perhaps in culinary recipes, but if I did I rather liked it or did not notice it. May be I’m (myself) am a moron!
    As for “myself” (myself) My original language use this form to emphasise (++++) situation. “me” or “I” can often be ordinary or casual with not real intention to signify the person (himself or herself or itself). Therefore in certain situation it add precision to the sentence.
    As for the annoyance, since I (myself) don’t remember much being affected by it… Speaking for (myself) I can’t really comment further than appreciate that is may be annoying when one (not 1) is bombarded with such repetition…
    My! I was suppose to be productive with my own work and what do I do… ?
    I was trying to review all this but can’t find a way to see the entire text on my page? So leave it as is.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Dear Michel,

      I always enjoy getting comments on this subject, as it keeps the conversation going. I continue to be irked by people who put numbers in parentheses, as they add no value to communication. I thank you for your comment on my blog.

      Brian

  29. Michel m says:

    You’re very welcome and I thank you back for having that blog!
    I’m quite satisfied with the simple answer – and now I try to apply it so up to two digits I make a point to have it spelt and beyond use numerals. I seldom write in one shot and so will use numbers for the draft but change it after.

  30. Carr13 says:

    I actually think (a large majority of) people are stupid; not only with regard to this post, but also, generally speaking.

    However, for the interest of this specific topic –
    I am getting married, and in my correspondence with my vendors, I write out single digit numbers, followed by the numeral in parentheses. However, this may be a bridal-wedding-planning-tic-thing. Although, I am a pretty laid back bride (just ask my groomzilla), and the vendors and their staff seem a little, too, discombobulated for my own comfort. During consultations and subsequent meetings, I interact with different people (than I originally did), and while they all take handwritten notes, these notes don’t seem to make it to some master notebook as I often repeat myself and/or correct them.

    I am not expecting my wedding day to be perfect – I find that a ridiculous expectation – but I want to make sure I did everything on my end to be as clear and concise as possible.

  31. Kevin Cottingim says:

    I am in the process of reviewing my company’s Employee Handbook. I am happy to report that I am deleting all double numericalization in it! I’m also trying to make it an easier read. 5. “Should PTO be needed on an urgent basis…” becomes “If you have an unexpected need to take PTO…”, etc.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Dear Kevin,

      I’m pleased that you are making your employee handbook better. Clear writing and clear communication are the big objective!

      Thank you for your comment on my blog.

      Brian P. Lawler

  32. Peter says:

    Great post Brian!

    I have a theory about the origin of this practice. It appears to widespread in engineering specifications and legal documents. Both of these types of documents consist almost entirely of boilerplate, where quantities are one of the few things that change from case-to-case.

    My theory is that at one time the initial authors of these boilerplate templates used the construction “one (1) unit(s)” as a way to indicate that the user should replace that phrase with the actual quantity. Since the quantity may end up being 11 or more, it is indeterminate which number format should be used in the final document.

    However, boilerplate users don’t realize this or are in too much of a hurry to execute after copy-pasting. I admit that I sometimes even leave in the (s) of unit(s). So it is misinterpreted as meaning both number and numeral should be typed. This mistake is so common that it has become the rule.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Hi Peter,

      I like your suggestion as to the roots of the word (number) boilerplate process. I have on occasion seen it reach a level of ridiculousness. At the university where I teach I encountered one document that did it backward! number (word).

      Because I was in an unpleasant relationship with the document’s creator I didn’t make any comments, but I really wanted to correct it.

      I stand by my comment that the process is just silly. We should all stop doing it and move on.

      Thank you,

      Brian P. Lawler

  33. drnano says:

    Here is the story I heard on why this got started…

    A retired fellow worked part time at the RadioShack store where I worked while I was in college in the early ‘70s. After a while I noticed that he would put the numeric representation first and then the word equivalents on the list of how many of what needed to be ordered from the warehouse. When I asked about it he told me it was the way he learned to make messages from his father, who was a merchant ship radioman back in the very early days when wireless signals were all in Morse code.

    In those days, the radio signal tended to fade in and out during a message transmission. When a fade happened during a letter of a word (with several DAHs and DITs per letter), one could usually figure out the garbled letter or letters from the context of the word or sentence. But when a fade happened during the transmission of numbers, the operator could never be sure of copying the intended digit correctly, or if some digits of a larger number were missing. So, to be sure, they always sent the word equivalent after the numbers.

    He said that later with radio teletype, characters occasionally got garbled due to radio interference, too. And even with landline telegraphs, distracted operators could copy numbers incorrectly.

    He was absolutely certain, however, that the fact that writing out the number in words tended to run up the bill for the message, which was calculated on the number of characters sent, had nothing at all to do with the practice.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      That’s an interesting story, and perhaps it’s the root of this evil. But I suggest that with modern communication that does not suffer from fading in and out that it’s time to stop doing it.

      Brian

  34. Jack Oden says:

    I was in the Army for 20 years, retiring in the mid 90’s. In the Army I learned that, when writing communications for the Army’s teletype service, it was required to put single numbers in both words and parentheses for clarity purposes. That is, if the message had to be read, which used to happen often in the “old” days, the reader would read the word, then say “I repeat” and say the number. In effect, it was useless in the automated system, but it needed to be there, just in case. The reverse was true of persons transcribing the spoken message. Thus if someone said “three”, then said “four” the listener could ask for clarification. That would be really important if you wanted to know how many tanks the enemy has in their attacking force.

    • Scott Perry says:

      I agree with the clarity purpose. This way there are not excuses especially when it comes to instructions. I’m surprised with the clarity the legal world has to do that it is not required in legal writing.

      Case in point…I am writing some instructions for a product. I am putting the number three (3) in parenthesis to make absolutely sure the consumer can’t tell me that they did not see it. To me it makes sense in this world of entitled people that seem to blame everyone but themselves for that happens to them. You all as lawyers should surely understand this.

      The point…there are a lot of people in the world today that are stupid or the writer needs to make sure they understand what they are reading. It is not that you are stupid it is called CYA (covering your ass).

      • Brian Lawler says:

        Hi Scott,

        You have fallen prey to the “readers are stupid, so let’s repeat all the numbers” argument, for which there is no evidence of value.

        The point of my blog, and the ongoing comments, is that this practice is silly. We don’t need to assume that people are stupid and that we must repeat the numbers lest they misunderstand them.

        Why do we not repeat all the words, if people are so stupid?

        It just doesn’t make sense to me.

        Thank you for your comment. It will continue to provide a contrasting point of view.

        Best wishes,

        Brian P. Lawler

  35. Dan Z says:

    Legitimate uses of repeating numerals by parenthesizing the spelled-out number probably constitute 1% of the cases. The other 99% are people trying to appear smarter than they are by repeating a practice they saw elsewhere.

  36. Tim M says:

    Very late to this party, but it’s a great topic. I am an attorney, and I never, ever, spell the numbers out and then put the numbers in parentheses. I think the argument about needing the dual usage because of the possibility of making typos is asinine. The only reason you need a convention for whether the numbers spelled out or in Arabic numerals should control is because the use of both makes it possible that there will be an inconsistency. If you use the numbers in only one way, you won’t have an inconsistency, and you have no need for the rule of interpretation. Are you more likely to make a mistake writing the numbers our in words, or just putting them in Arabic numerals? Who knows? But, particularly for very large numbers, it’s a heck of a lot easier to read the Arabic numerals than the words, and I’d guess that you’re more likely to be accurate with the Arabic numerals.

    As for why I’m adamant about not using the silly dual format, that goes back to the very first assignment I did at the law firm where I began my career. I was asked to prepare a document that used numbers, and dutifully used the dual format (e.g., “Four hundred dollars ($400)). I sent my draft document to the partner who had assigned the work to me, and a few days later he asked me to come to his office to go over the document. He complimented me on the work, but asked why I had written the numbers out in letters and then in numerals. I replied that I had seen that done in other models, and assumed that that’s how we were supposed to put numbers in legal documents. He then proceeded to tell me how this practice had originated. According to this (many years deceased) partner, the practice originated in England in the Middle Ages, when lawyers, along with maybe clergy, were the only people who could read and write. People would come to them with agreements they needed, and the lawyers (no doubt standing at scrivener’s desks and using a feather and a pot of ink) would dutifully write the numbers out in words, followed by numerals in parentheses.

    Why did they do this? Apparently because they were paid by the word, and following this silly convention would yield a larger fee. Supposedly this is also the reason why, in a deed to real property, you never see the seller simply “sell” the property to the buyer. Instead, they will do something like “grant, bargain, warrant, convey, alienate, release, assign, set over and confirm” the property to the buyer. You can find similar lists of synonyms in wills, where you never simply “leave” your property to your heirs, but instead do something like “give, devise and bequeath” the property. Do these extra words actually have some critical meaning? Would there be a fatal flaw in a will or a deed if one of the magic synonyms — many of which haven’t been used in common parlance for centuries, if ever — were omitted? Unlikely, but real estate and trusts & estate lawyers are extremely conservative, and are generally reluctant to part with any of their precious synonyms. So they perpetuate the system that yielded a few extra shillings to the lawyers who came up with this language in the Middle Ages, even though (sadly), the lawyers who perpetuate this practice are no longer paid by the word and will earn no extra fee for their efforts in preserving this tradition.

    I have absolutely no idea whether this story is, in fact, true, but once I heard it, I vowed that I, at least, would not continue to perpetuate this practice.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Dear Tim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment on my post. I appreciate the words of a member of the bar on this topic. Too often we resort to saying that things are done because the lawyers require it.

      But that just isn’t rue, is it?

      Best wishes,

      Brian P. Lawler

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