At 592 pages, The 4-Hour Body covers a lot of ground. Except what to do about numbers vs numerals in text. Does that 4 in the title make you wince more than the diet the book recommends? Let's see why.

 

Timothy Ferriss's previous blockbuster The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated, started a revolution--or at least a lucrative franchise.

 

He's followed it up with

 

 

 

The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman.

 

That's quite a title, and not tongue-in-cheek. The book's synopsis asks

 

"Thinner, bigger, faster, stronger... which 150 pages will you read?

Is it possible to:
Reach your genetic potential in 6 months?
Sleep 2 hours per day and perform better than on 8 hours?
                              Lose more fat than a marathoner by bingeing?"

 

and promises that


"YOU WILL LEARN (in less than 30 minutes each):
How to lose those last 5-10 pounds (or 100+ pounds) with odd combinations of food and safe chemical cocktails.

* How to prevent fat gain while bingeing (X-mas, holidays, weekends)
* How to increase fat-loss 300% with a few bags of ice
* How Tim gained 34 pounds of muscle in 28 days, without steroids, and in four hours of total gym time
* How to sleep 2 hours per day and feel fully rested
* How to produce 15-minute female orgasms
* How to triple testosterone and double sperm count
* How to go from running 5 kilometers to 50 kilometers in 12 weeks
* How to reverse “permanent” injuries
* How to add 150+ pounds to your lifts in 6 months
* How to pay for a beach vacation with one hospital visit"

 

Whew. Well, I'm curious about some of that. And as someone who looks at grammar and style for a living, I'm curious about all those numbers and numerals: 300%, 34 pounds, 28 days, four hours, 4-hour, 2 hours, 15-minute, 5 kilometers, 50 kilometers, 12 weeks, 150+, 6 months, one hospital visit.

 

What's up with numbers? When do we spell them out and when do we numeralize them in written and printed and digital matter? Why?

 

First of all, it depends on context, as does the rest of life. In scientific, financial, and technical contexts, numerals are the rule.

 

Numerals are symbols for numbers: 5 and V are both numerals, but one is a Roman numeral; the other an Arabic numeral.

 

By the later Middle Ages, Arab cultures were highly advanced in math and science, and they advanced further and faster than their Western counterparts, some opine, because their numerals were so much more elegant and easy to add and multiply than Roman ones. Thus, Arabic numerals are preferred for areas in which lots of calculation takes place: science, math, finance, and so on.

 

We use Roman numerals when labelling the year of creation on Warner Bros cartoons (where I learned my Roman numerals at a very young age, being a connoisseur of the older Bugs Bunny shorts, rather than the late Mannerist 1970s ones) and other film productions in which we may want to hide the age of creative material; we use Arabic numerals in scientific, financial, and technical texts, and in written, printed, or digital matter such as fiction, nonfiction, and narrative we use . . . ?

 

Those rules depend on the style guide chose by that particular publication. Many books use Chicago Manual of Style rules; journalists use AP Stylebook, but even then, particular web sites, publishers, and editors often add to or modify these to produce their own set of rules.

 

But there is, thank goodness, some consistency. Why DOES "4-hour" seem so odd? Because we are used to seeing most whole numbers under ten spelled out. Numeralizing that "4" makes us stop and take notice, even if unconsciously -- an old advertising strategy for gaining attention. Anything that is counter-intuitive, not what we usually see, does that.

 

What we usually see are

Words for whole numbers under ten, including ages. Numerals for numbers above ten: 11, 234.

 

Numerals before the word percent.

 

Numerals for two- or three-unit numbers, such as 56 or 127; often one-word numbers are spelled out: twenty, a hundred, a thousand.

 

Words for numbers in dialogue. Numbers were always words in direct discourse in the past; styles are changing though, and we seldom see phone numbers or addresses spelled out in dialogue anymore, though most others are.

 

Words for fractions in text: one-third, two-tenths.

 

Words for ordinals: first, second, third, fourth.

 

Numerals for amounts in ingredient lists: 2 cups, 3 tbsp, 1 lb. of sugar.

 

Words for numbers that start sentences: Two people finally agreed on how to use numbers!

 

As for decades and centuries, style varies widely. Best to pick a style and stick to it.

 

Consistency of stylistic treatment can be a strategy. It can help guide the reader away from the questions about "Hey, why is that a number?" toward content: "Wait, this author says not to eat beans?"

 

And so Ferriss's strategy of numeralizing almost everything we expect to see as words is a strategy too, a strategy making us consider the newness of his ideas, the startling nature of what he recommends.

 

The rule for numerals and numbers are many; probably too many. And with every new publication, they seem to multiply; much like my beloved Bugs Bunny, stylistic rules can claim,

 

"Hey, doc, look at me! I'm multiplyin'!"

 

 

Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

 

 

 

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