Publishers follow consistency standards so their readers know what to expect and won’t get confused. But what if those standards are stumbling blocks to clarity?
That’s the question raised by some BBC coverage of the constantly changing (and consistently confusing) political situation in the United Kingdom right now. BBC’s streaming content Monday included a list of former prime ministers and their tenures. The entire stream is available here, but a partial list follows (I’ve bolded the relevant points):
James Callaghan 1976-79 (three years, 29 days)
Margaret Thatcher 1979-90 (11 years, 209 days)
John Major 1990-97 (six years, 154 days)
Tony Blair 1997-2007 (10 years, 56 days)
Gordon Brown 2007-10 (two years, 319 days)
David Cameron 2010-16 (six years, 60 days as of today)
The BBC’s own internal guidebook for consistency (similar to the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard bearer for the U.S. news industry) dictates that numbers one through nine should be written out, while larger numbers starting with 10 should be written using numerals. The reporter was apparently following this rule Monday when compiling the list above.
But alternating between numerals and written-out numbers was enough to prompt Liz Eden, an Oxford resident and friend of mine, to complain on social media (partly out of frustration with the presentation of data, partly out of frustration over the general turbulence over there this month).
“Having a mixture of words and digits for writing out numbers doesn’t help readability,” she wrote.
And I’d have to agree.
This material is presented in a bulleted format specifically so a reader can scan quickly and compare how long each prime minister served. As such, the information could have been presented more clearly if the term lengths had all been listed numerically, regardless of length.
“Three, 11, six, 10, two, six” isn’t as easy to visually process as “3, 11, 6, 10, 2, 6.”
This reminds me of a head-to-head I had with my editor over a decade ago while working at a Gannett newspaper in New Jersey. I had just interviewed a young girl and her father who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and wanted to open up the story as follows:
BOUND BROOK – A few numbers to consider:
During a course of 7 days, Jenna Nerger hiked 62 miles through 5 climates to a height of 18,650 feet.
And she’s 11.
Because my lead focused on the impressive statistics, I had pushed the AP Stylebook aside and written all those stats using numerals. My editor, ever loyal to the spiral-bound bible of the newspaper world, insisted that 7 and 5 be spelled out in accordance with style. I passionately made my case (“Sometimes you need to bend the rules for poetic license; that’s what makes this an art that connects us with our readers!”), and she eloquently made hers (“No.”), so the story went to press with a combination of numerals and written numbers.
But looking at what the BBC posted Monday, I notice one key difference between their story and mine that demonstrates why I needed to stick to the rules but the BBC should have strayed from theirs.
In my story, each number measured something different (time, distance, climates, height, age). In the BBC story, each number applied to years, measuring the same unit. It was written for the clear purpose of comparison; therefore, a consistent way of expressing the numbers would have better served that purpose.
Are readers over the age of 8 – I’m sorry; eight – capable of understanding the list anyway? Of course.
But the British government is confusing enough right now, and poor Liz already has a headache; why complicate things further?
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