Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, November 11, 2015 8 comments
Dear Editor-on-Call,
Photo credit: diannehope from morguefile.com

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you


Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time

AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages

AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Dates

Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2014. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2012.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?

Have a burning editing question? Feel free to leave it in the comments, and I'll cover it in a future post.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this good share. I'm always wondering how to write dates, times, and numbers in general. I've bookmarked this post for future reference.

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    1. You're welcome. Glad this information came in handy.

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  2. It really does come down to genre, doesn't it? I can see some of those working in one instance and looking atrocious in the next.

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    1. Indeed, how you handle numbers can help convey milieu; for example the use of o'clock is good for historical fiction and a.m./p.m. is better for mysteries and thrillers.

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  3. Have been chained to the AP style guide, however, when freed, found publishers often rely on the Chicago Manual of Style. It has an entire chapter on numbers, which includes time preferences.

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    1. I think most of my recommendations above are consistent with Chicago, with perhaps the exception of time. In normal conversation, someone is more likely to say two o'clock, while 2:00 p.m. sounds more like journalist speak than spouses or friends chatting.

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  4. Great advice--be consistent. And yep, publishers have their own preferences. I had to change my manuscript to line up with CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style). No numbers in dialogue either, only written out as "twelve thirty-two."

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    1. I get the sense most US publishers use Chicago as their base, then build house style exceptions from it. But a self-published author could just as easily use AP as their go-to style manual. Consistency is really the key.

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