Surely you’ve come across them while surfing the internet, in your social media feeds, in magazines or newspapers (for the younger readers: texts and images printed with ink on paper – was widely used in the pre-internet era): articles or blogposts that want to grab your attention by using some kind of number in the headline.
To point out just how irritating the abundance of the use of numbers has become by now, I’ve assembled some of the practices that cause irritation in a convenient list.
1. Use only the number as the title
You encounter this often in popular science publications: the number is the title, typically something like 6, 2782 or 9.000.000 (in a huge typeface, bold). Obviosuly this arouses your curiosity, but the danger of disappointment when actually starting to read the article is quite big, as there is no clue whatsoever about the actual content. Pretty soon you might come to the conclusion that the topic discussed is not one you wanted or needed to know more about.
2. Awkwardly indicate proximity to the actual number
What could ever be meant by ‘over 8 people’? Not 10, as then it would be very natural to say ’10 people’. Nine? Probably, but what a silly way to refer to it – plain ‘9’ or ‘just under 10’ make much more sense if you ask me. When using an indication of proximity, such as almost, nearly, roughly, etc, the number accompanying it should be a number that we naturally see as a point of round off (5, 10, 20, 100, etc).
3. Replace some of the characters with a numb3r
In case you would not have noticed: we are now well into the 21st century. Replacing characters (e.g. e becomes 3, i becomes 1) or words (e.g. for becomes 4, to becomes 2) with numbers was definitely a 20th century thing. So please stop doing it. It only makes you look oldfashioned. (Or keep doing it and hope it comes back in style some day.)
4. Use percentages and have a sum different from 100
One of the big advantages of working with percentages is that you can be 100% sure that the sum will be 100. So if there are factors pointing to another sum, this is causing confusion (which is in my case a direct path to irritation). Either the sum is below 100, e.g. “70% answered green, 20% answered red”; and what about the other 10%? Were the respondents able to choose for a third option? Was there an option ‘no preference’? Is 10% of the population colour blind? Or the sum seems to be over 100, e.g. “70% answered green, 50% answered red”; probably the respondents were allowed to indicate more than one answer, but this fact should of course be mentioned clearly. In case of elections, however, more than 1 choice is not allowed, so if the results there are over 100, there is defintely something wrong (as you can see by adding up the numbers in the picture below from the 2011 elections in Russia – it lead to a new expression in Russian: to split something seventy-seventy)
5. Fail to mention the scale
Unfortunately different metric systems and scales are still being used in different countries. So, if your content is meant for an international audience, make sure to take this into account. Especially US based content publishers often make this error. For a US audience it makes perfect sense to talk about ‘a comfortable 80°’, but to a European reader/listener/viewer who might interpret this to mean 80° Celsius (and not the intended 80° Fahrenheit), it could sound all but comfortable.
6. Compile a list with a number of points that doesn’t match the number in the title
This is by far the most horrific mistake to be made. If an author promises to give a certain number of tips, methods, points, ways or whatever, he/she should of course have the decency to deliver exactly what was promised. If you ask me, this is even a case where a firm response is needed: whenever you come across a case like this, make sure to leave a comment to the author to point out what a reprehensible error (s)he has made!