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?

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THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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