When Numerals Come 1st

by Mark L. Levinson

“With all due respect,” said Dror the developer, “I don’t see why I can’t start a sentence with a numeral.”

I looked again at the paragraph in his spec:  “The necktie database always includes at least the hard-coded default necktie.  512 neckties is the maximum.”

“It’s a widely accepted rule,” I said.  “Even the 4-H club tries not to start a sentence with a numeral, and imagine how difficult it must be for them.”

“You’ve lost me.  What’s the 4-H club?  And with all due respect, why follow that rule?”

“They’re the Goy Scouts, sort of,” I said.  “It’s an American thing.  But I’ll check on the Internet about the numerals.  I think the reason must be that since a capital letter helps us to recognize the start of a sentence, and we have no capital numerals, your eye won’t as easily pick up the break between sentences.”

“I guess that makes sense.  But suppose the sentence starts a paragraph.  The problem wouldn’t exist there, would it?”

“Maybe that’s an exception.”

“And with all due respect, while numerals can’t be capitalized, lots of abbreviations can’t be lowercased.  GSM, IBM, RFP.  So wouldn’t they cause exactly the same problem at the start of a sentence?”

“I suppose they would.  You know what?  Maybe they shouldn’t be used at the start of a sentence either.”

“But people’s names start with capital letters too.  With all due respect, you’re not going to tell me no one’s name can start a sentence, are you?”

“Let me check the Internet.  I’ll get back to you.” 

I checked Google for “never begin a sentence” and “never start a sentence.”  I found several firm anti-numeralists, including TranslationDirectory.com, a portal for freelance translators and translation agencies; Flinders University, in Australia; New Mexico State University; and Webster University, whatever that is, which actually recommends “Eighteen sixty-five marked the commencement of the war” whereas other sites recommend rephrasing to avoid starting a sentence with a long number.  Flinders University says that “numbers and percentages can start a sentence in bullet points,” which sounds as if someone is trying to stake out a defensibly specific instance of the start-of-paragraph exception.

Nobody seems to cite a reason, except the London Mathematical Society Journal of Computation and Mathematics, which advises we “never begin a sentence with a formula or a mathematical symbol when the preceding sentence has ended with a symbol — the eye will first read the concatenation of symbols as one formula.  (In fact, it is a useful rule always to try to organise your writing so that sentences never, or rarely, begin with a technical symbol.)”

Flinders University, the journal Insecta Mundi, the North West Learning Grid in England, and some physics requirements at the University of Maryland tell us never to begin a sentence with an abbreviation.

The next time I saw Dror the developer, I said, “Maybe it’s worth observing that rule about numerals just because if you break it, some readers will be distracted by the breaking of the rule, rather than because the rule follows a logic we can understand.  Or maybe there’s room for flexibility.”

“With all due respect,” said Dror, but I don’t remember what he said after that.  I was sidetracked by the thought of something else my Google search had turned up, from a blogger by the name of Bissage:  “Never begin a sentence to a judge with the words ‘with all due respect, your honor’ because every judge knows that translates to mean ‘listen up, bonehead!’”

Questions and comments are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.