by Rajan Venkataraman, Senior Editor

‘In 2010, we had seven employees, whereas in 2019, we had 23. This is an increase of 228.57 per cent.’

This sentence is accurate and properly punctuated, and there are no grammatical or spelling mistakes. What would we do with it?

The work of editors is to improve a written text. Of course, we look for and correct typos, we pay attention to the rules of grammar, and we make sure the document is consistent in terms of format and style. More than this, however, we also look at whether the meaning of the text is clear, whether there is scope to misinterpret it, and whether the language used is appropriate for the type of document and for its intended audience.

Numbers form an integral part of many of the documents we edit. These include technical documents, annual reports, and grant applications. The numbers in these documents are key to their meaning and the points they are trying to make.

Given the importance of numbers in many different types of texts, it is surprising that style guides generally have little to say about their use. As editors, we’re not asked to confirm the accuracy of the numbers used in these different documents. However, we do look at whether the meaning of the numbers is clear and whether they are presented in the most appropriate way.

In the example above, we would ask whether including the percentage figure helps the reader understand the growth in the number of employees at the company. Are the numbers 7 and 23 sufficiently clear on their own? Will the meaning of a large and complicated number like ‘228.57 per cent’ be understood by the readers, or does it in fact distract them from the more important information that you want them to remember? Does it affect the flow and readability of the document?

In an example like this one, if the client wanted to emphasise the growth of their workforce, we might suggest saying something like: ‘We now have more than three times as many staff.’ This would be much clearer, but even this change might give the reader the false impression that the number of employees is growing steadily year by year. What if 2010 or 2017 were just unusual years?

Let’s look at another example.

‘In 2018, the population of the country was estimated at 138.1 million, compared to 136.172 million in the previous year.’

In this sentence, the author has expressed one number to one decimal place but the other number to three decimal places. Since the sentence is trying to compare the population in two different years, we would suggest that both figures use the same number of decimal places. But should this be one or three?

Did you notice the word ‘estimated’ in the sentence? If these numbers are estimates, how confident are they in the accuracy of the numbers down to the third decimal place? And how important is it for their reader to know the figures to this level of accuracy?

In the sciences, there is a concept known as ‘false precision’ or ‘over-precision’. It can look impressive to give a number with a lot of digits and a lot of decimal places, but is it justified? In general, long strings of numbers can be hard to read, they affect the flow of a sentence, and they may not be easily understood by your readers. In this example, it might be clearer and more memorable to say the population of the country was about 138 million and it had grown by nearly two million since the previous year.

Of course, we also often see numbers illustrated using graphs or pie charts. These can help to make the information clearer and give the reader’s eyes a break from complicated text. But, beware. The presentation of information in these forms carries risks. Not all readers are comfortable interpreting them. This is particularly so if they are densely packed with numbers, or if they require the reader to understand the units used, the scale, a colour scheme and other elements of the figure before they can work out what they are looking at.

Hit Send editors review text, Figures and your document as a whole. We assess these for clarity, readability, persuasiveness and logical flow and provide comments if you would like us to.