When Numbers are Hard to Read

One of the more annoying quirks of New Yorker house style is this kind of thing:

A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its figures for 2007. They showed that Americans had collectively amassed ten trillion one hundred and eighty-four billion dollars in disposable income and spent very nearly all of it–ten trillion one hundred and thirty-two billion dollars. This rate of spending was somewhat lower than the rate in 2006, when Americans spent all but thirty-nine billion dollars of their total disposable income.

It’s really hard to read, and if you actually stop to try to digest the numbers before moving on, you’ll find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time reading that one paragraph. Why is that? Well, one of the great things about the New Yorker is that it’ll tell us itself:

If evolution has equipped us with one way of representing number, embodied in the primitive number sense, culture furnishes two more: numerals and number words. These three modes of thinking about number, Dehaene believes, correspond to distinct areas of the brain. The number sense is lodged in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain that relates to space and location; numerals are dealt with by the visual areas; and number words are processed by the language areas.

In order to take the difference between "ten trillion one hundred and eighty-four billion dollars" and "ten trillion one hundred and thirty-two billion dollars", and then compare that difference to "thirty-nine billion dollars", what a reader needs to do is process the words in the language area of their brain, then import the results into the number area of the brain, and go back and forth many times. It’s much easier to see the difference between $10.184 trillion and $10.132 trillion, and compare that to $39 billion.

There’s really only one reason for the New Yorker to continue to stick to this anachronistic house style, and that’s well, that it’s house style. But while house-style idiosyncrasies like "coöperate" are pretty harmless, the spelling-out-names-of-dollar-amounts rule really does make the magazine significantly harder to read.

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