Grammar FAQ

As an editor and English teacher, I frequently hear the following questions:

1. How do I know whether to write a number as a numeral or a word?

Seems like a simple question, but the answer is complicated. Different books give different rules. Here’s a summary:

All style guides say to write out a number that begins a sentence. If you’re using a large number, rewrite the sentence so the number isn’t at the beginning. Also, most books list the following as instances where numerals are always used:

Street addresses: 121 Southern Drive

Dates: March 12, 2012

Decimals: The difference in the projections is 1.21 points.

Time: 8 a.m., 8 o’clock, 8:10 p.m.

Specific amounts of money: $10.58.

Beyond that, no one agrees when to write the numeral or the word.

The Associated Press and other journalistic stylebooks say to write out one through nine and use a numeral for 10 and higher.

The Chicago Manual of Style says to write out round numbers and numbers up to a hundred. It also says to ignore its own rule if two numbers are being used in the same context/sentence but would take different forms if you followed the rule. So it would be correct Chicago style to say the following:

On the first day, ninety-nine members voted, with one hundred and one voting the second day.


On the first day, 99 members voted, with 101 voting the second day.

But only the latter would be correct for AP.

Some grammar books say to write out fifty and below, some say a hundred and below. Some say to spell out numbers that can be written in one or two words: forty-two versus 142, which would be four words if written out.

You can justify using any of these rules if you are consistent within your document. (I used numbers inconsistently in this post to demonstrate the various guidelines.) Of course, for workplace documents, follow your company’s preferred style.

2. When do I use who versus whom, and does anyone really know the difference?

For decades, grammarians have predicted the demise of the word whom. But the word is still alive, so let’s use it correctly.

In spoken English, most people say who instead of whom because whom sounds stuffy. That’s fine for a casual conversation or e-mail, but not formal writing.

The basic difference is that who is a subject and whom is an object. What that really means is that who has a verb describing its action and whom doesn’t, usually following a preposition.

Who is in charge of this project? (Who takes the verb is.)

To whom do you intend to write this letter? (In this case, you is the subject with do intend as the verb. Whom has nothing to do with the verb, instead following a preposition.)

Since these words frequently involve questions, try straightening up the sentence to see what you get:

You intend to write this letter to whom? (In this version, you can clearly see that whom is far from being attached to any verb.)

But just when usage looks easy, a tricky sentence comes along:

I will give the paperwork to whoever is elected as the new treasurer.

Most people automatically use whom after to because the expression “to whom it may concern” is burned into their brains. But in this case, whoever is the subject for the verb is elected.

Here’s another tricky one:

Whom is this project being assigned to?

This sounds wrong because we know that who takes verbs like is. (If you’re bent out of shape by the sentence-ending preposition, see my earlier post “Lies Your English Teacher Told You” or recast the sentence as shown below.) But since the sentence is a question, inverting it reveals the true role of all the words:

This project is being assigned to whom?

So be careful to whom you write because you never know who is keeping track of your errors!

NOTE: I will devote the next post to reader questions, so please submit yours in the Comments section, and I’ll address them along with a few questions posed on earlier posts.

Next time: Reader questions

Some writers are unsure about whether it’s “legal” to use the word you in their writing.

It’s fine — under certain circumstances.

When using the word you in a document, you should be referring to everyone who reads the document. Instructional documents like this blog use you because the material addresses everyone reading them.

Using you in how-to documents also makes writing simpler by eliminating problems with consistency in number or person or gender.

However, some people claim that writers should avoid you at all costs, saying that even in instructional documents, you is wrong:

First, you need to turn off the copier.

First, turn off the copier.

Actually, using you in the above example isn’t a grammar violation. But the second version is more concise, so eliminating you was a matter of style.

Also, directly addressing the audience automatically makes the writing less formal, so avoid the practice in formal situations.

In addition, you can be unnecessary or inaccurate. This is another of those areas — like using they instead of he or she — where people usually use incorrect wording, so the wrong way sounds right. For example, many people would write something like this:

I walked into the conference room and tried to put everyone at ease. But you could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone avoided eye contact.

There’s no reason to shift to you as the person in the story. The readers of the story weren’t at the meeting. The correct thing to say is this:

I could tell it was going to be a tense meeting by the way everyone was avoiding eye contact.

However, using you has become a common way to say “anyone who would have been there would have experienced the same thing I did.” This is fine in casual conversation and informal e-mails. In fact, it is the dominant way this idea is expressed. But in formal documents, don’t use you unless it’s appropriate.

Next time: Grammar FAQ

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