Obscure Box

Thoughts from inside the obscure box

February 17, 2010

Why we need commas

Posted by : Michael Lund

Many style guides for news organisations here in Australia are lax of the use of commas in numbers 1,000 t0 9,999.

They prefer to drop the comma and opt for 1000 to 9999. Commas are fine higher numbers with digits grouped in threes so it's 10,000 and 1,000,000 and so on.

I think the commas should be there from 1,000 onwards. Why? Why not!

Why have a split rule? Why not be consistent? Most computing technology these days allows for the comma to e used from 1,000 onwards. No split rule.

I also think there's a risk of some ambiguity on what's being said, especially when general style allows the commas to be dropped from street numbers and years.

Take this line from the Oscar preview story Aussie filmmakers at Oscar's luncheon posted on the Sky News website (Tuesday 16 February 2010).

For many of the other 2010 nominees - make-up artists, editors, special effects geeks and Aussie short filmmakers Luke Doolan and Drew Bailey - the Oscar luncheon was another magical experience full of pomp and ceremony on the way to the highlight of their working lives, the March 7 Academy Awards ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

How many nominees?

The sentence is ambiguous. It can be read to say there are 2,010 nominees or it can be read to say the nominees for the year 2010.

The actual number of nominees for the year 2010 is 121, according to the news report.

A consistent policy on commas in numbers would have avoided any potential confusion.

Okay, this was only an Oscar preview story. The context and familiarity of the story should avoid any confusion. Why worry?

What if I was talking about many of the 2002 Bali bombing victims?

How many victims? As time goes by the context and familiarity of a story can fade.

The Australian Federal Police says in Bali bombings 2002 (Page Updated: May 2, 2008) that 202 people died in the bombings, including 88 Australians.

See my point?

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All thoughts and comments here are the honestly held personal opinion of Michael Lund and are based on the information available at the time of publication.