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  1. dillseed
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    dillseed Active Member

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    Narrative vs. dialogue

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by dillseed, Apr 19, 2014.

    In a narrative we can use numbers, correct? But in dialogue we must spell out every number, right?

    Thanks.

    Ds
     
  2. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    This is a question for @mammamaia.

    I think the exception might be a year: "I remember 1980 like it was yesterday" rather than "I remember nineteen eighty like it was yesterday".
     
  3. dillseed
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    dillseed Active Member

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    Thanks, Ed.
     
  4. dillseed
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    dillseed Active Member

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    I'm told that we never use numbers for dialogue, because we speak in words, not numbers.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you're right, dillseed...

    however, using numerals in narrative makes little to no sense, either... check out any dozen novels by generally respected authors and see if it's ever done...
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Unfortunately, it. I crin ge when I see it, but face it: the industry is relaxing its standards, at least in some areas.

    Until, of course, you try to sell your own MS with those kinds of mistakes. :D
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Just kibbutzing here ...but it seems if the number is large enough, it would make sense to present it as numerals (figures) rather than words.

    If you say your vase broke into eleven pieces, that seems to work fine. But if you say your box contains four thousand, six hundred, and eighty-three marbles, it might be more sensible to say your box holds 4,683 marbles? It's an instantly recognisable number, while the written-out version takes a bit of work.

    The Webster's Compact Writers Guide (1987 edition) says there are two basic conventions for writing numbers:

    One - A writer uses figures for exact numbers greater than 9 (or 10), and words for lesser numbers.

    Two - A writer uses figures for all exact numbers 100 and above, and words for numbers from one to ninety-nine.

    In both cases, it's okay to use a figure followed by the word hundred, thousand, million, etc.
     
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  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    @jannert, such rules and conventions apply mostly to nonfiction. I remember learning about that rule you posted. Students were told over and over again to use words for anything below ten and to use numbers for everything else.

    I remember asking my teacher what we should do for negative numbers. She told me to quit being a smartass. :(
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In fiction, I write out every number in words, because I want to know how to say it when I read it aloud. This even applies to years - I need to know that 2014, at least in one character's head, is read as twenty fourteen as opposed to two thousand fourteen (which is how another character might think of it).
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    There isn't any reference at all in the Websters' that is specifically directed at fiction—which makes me think you can probably do what you like in this regard, as long as you're consistent and it reads well.

    They do make the distinction between legal and scientific/technical writing, though. Legal documents require most numbers to be written out as words, while scientific/technical writing requires the opposite, that numbers should always be presented as figures.

    Just curious. Have you managed to quit being a smartass? :confused:
     
  11. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I like this. It seems like a clever detail. My only concern would be that readers who aren't careful or forget about the change in pov might mistake it for you being sloppy or inconsistent. Then again, I'm sure the rest of your writing is so tight no one would notice or be bothered.

    To the OP: I think this a good question. @jannert did a fair job breaking down the rule, but as @thirdwind aptly pointed out, it works a bit differently in fiction. I'd say stick with words. I'll have to remember that myself, although it shouldn't be hard.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Perhaps. I know that some publishers have in-house rules that they like to follow. I tend to write everything out because, as minstrel pointed out, the reader knows exactly how to pronounce it.

    No I have not.
     
  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Good! Everybody likes one. They even get paid, if they're funny enough. :)

    I still think big numbers, like 91, 547, register better if they're written as figures rather than written-out words: ninety-one thousand, five hundred forty seven. Whether it's fiction or not.

    However, in dialogue, because the numbers are spoken out loud, I would certainly always write them as words.

    Unless your publisher has a style they insist you adhere to, I'd say do whatever you want, though. It's your fiction!

    ..........

    Just checked out Strunk & White. They don't have a lot to say on the subject, but their book does deal with fiction as well as non-fiction writing.

    They say: Numerals - do not spell out dates or other serial numbers. Write them in figures or in Roman notation, as appropriate.
    August 9, 1988
    Rule 3
    Part XII
    352d Infantry

    Exception: When they occur in dialogue, most dates and numbers are best spelled out.

    "I arrived home on August ninth."
    "In the year 1990, I turned twenty-one."
    "Read Chapter Twelve."
    ...................................

    So ...is there a definitive answer for the fiction writer? I suspect not.
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2014
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  14. dillseed
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    dillseed Active Member

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    So does everyone concur with my other post (“Numbers in quoted dialogue”)? I think that all examples listed are correct, then, with respect to the spelled-out numbers in quoted dialogue.

    Thanks again.
     
  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Just had another thought. What if we're barking up the wrong tree here? What if it's not the size of the number that matters, but the number of words it takes to say it?

    Example, @minstrel 's 2014 date. Written out, it's twenty fourteen. Not hard to say or visualise. However, if the date is 2154, you'd have to write twenty-one fifty-four, which isn't quite as smooth. Or if it's a number, not a date? Ten thousand is easy to write and visualise as words ...but ten thousand six hundred and forty two?

    Hmmm... worth thinking about? Since there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule?
     
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  16. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Is it okay to use common sense? (I know it doesn't always apply when editorial questions come up).

    "At one glance, he was able to tell the number of seeds on the floor. Fifty-four thousand four hundred and twenty-seven."

    Or

    "At one glance, he was able to tell the number of seeds on the floor. on the floor. 54,427."

    I don't know, I can personally process the latter better, and while I'm no editor, I think I'd give it a pass in narration, but if the rule of thumb were that no numerals in dialogue, I think I'd just have to avoid unwieldy numbers in dialogue :eek:
     
  17. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, there are some exceptions to my personal rule above. I wouldn't spell out ridiculous numbers. John Banville's Kepler has the number 0.00429 right there on page one. I'd let it stand. ;)

    But I'm an engineer, and I'd usually just approximate numbers. If the number is actually 76,845,323 for example, I'd just say seventy-seven million. :p
     
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  18. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've wondered about this in reference to cases where the numeral is actually part of the word. For example, the band U2. I can't possibly imagine that the standard would be to spell it "U-two" in dialogue. Is that really the case?
     
  19. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yup. I was just thinking, like, if one was to write a character who has an uncanny ability to count stuff :D
     
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  20. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd let it stand as U2. It's the name of the band - the band is not called U-two. :)
     
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  21. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert - interesting that in the examples you cited from Strunk and White, the year 1990 was shown as a numeral. Or, was that your example?
     
  22. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I guess it really only makes a difference when there are two ways of saying something. In your example, if someone swept fifty thousand seeds off the floor, would there be four thousand four hundred and twenty seven left, or forty-four hundred and twenty-seven? ;)
     
  23. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Now that just made me wonder whether there are regional differences I should take into account when it comes to expressing numbers in words...
     
  24. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Nope, that's how it's written in their book, 'Elements of Style.' The whole bit she quoted is from the same book (just looked it up).

    ETA: Maybe that just goes to show how few absolutes there are to writing fiction 'cause a lot of people recommend 'Elements' (I've even seen a few publishers / agents recommend it on the guideline portion of their websites), but I suppose it's best to always check the guidelines of whomever you're submitting your MS to in order to find out what they want instead of doggedly holding onto some fixed rule you learned at some point, somewhere.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2014
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  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Hi Ed - No, that was exactly as they presented it.

    In the year nineteen-ninety, I turned twenty-one seems unnecessarily clunky and self-aware to me. Obviously, it did to them, too.

    The Elements of Style says, in its preface, that the styling conventions discussed in the book offer (acceptable) choices, rather than single rules ...as over the years, writers and editors have developed differing rules.

    Even Strunk & White recognise there are no absolutes when it comes to certain kinds of writing. I'd say fiction is pretty much an open playing field. The trick is how the reader follows what you've written, so I'd say use whatever works best.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2014
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