Numbers: Numbers as figurative speech

October 23, 2003: Issue 70

SIM STYLE: I recently saw “a hundred” written out, rather than “100.” Wouldn’t the figure be correct?
Not always. True, it is SIM style to write out the numbers zero through nine and use figures for the numbers 10 and above. But a few number words—hundred, thousand, million, billion, etc.—don’t always represent exact figures. Look up these words in Web 11, and you’ll see one of the definitions offered is “a very large number.” In that usage, it’s better to write them out. Let’s look at an example.
example one: A picture is worth 1,000 words.
example two: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Which is correct? Example 2 is the better choice. In this case, we don’t literally mean 1,000 words. We simply mean to convey that a picture sometimes tells the story better than any number of words could.

Remember this rule of thumb: When number words are part of figurative speech, don’t use figures; when they refer to specific quantities, do.
incorrect: They could think of 100 reasons to move, but one big reason to stay.
correct: They could think of a hundred reasons to move, but one big reason to stay.

     incorrect: Prizes were given to the first thousand customers.
 correct: Prizes were given to the first 1,000 customers.

     incorrect: ”I must have tried 1 million different color combinations,” the designer says.
correct: “I must have tried a million different color combinations,” the designer says.

GRAMMAR: More Idiom Soup
Isn’t it fun to realize you’ve been saying the wrong thing all this time? No one notices until it’s time to write an expression out. So make sure you get these sayings right.
correct: by and large (not “by in large,” or “by enlarge”)
correct: case in point (not “case and point”)
correct: rite of passage (not “right”)
correct: vale of tears (not “veil”)
correct: whet your appetite (not “wet”)

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