Last week, we talked about how the words used to express numbers can help (or confuse) readers. Now, let’s talk about how presenting those numbers can help readers understand them better.
For example, in recent weeks many amusement parks raised their prices. “Busch Gardens will increase single-day ticket costs by $4 to $89 for adults,” one report said. Does that mean that some tickets will cost $4 more and others will cost $89 more? Of course not, and most people probably won’t be confused.
But by using that “by” to introduce both the increase and the new price, the syntax of the sentence is off. The new price is not an increase; it is simply the new price. If the numbers were smaller, though, confusion could set in. If the price of soda was “going up by $1 to $3,” it could mean that sodas were going up by $1 and would now cost $3, or it could mean that some sodas were going to be $1 more expensive while others would cost $3 more.
To avoid any confusion when dealing with changes, some simple techniques will succeed every time:
When the numbers indicate a range—prices are increasing by anywhere between $X and $Y—just say that: “Soda prices are going up by $1 to $3.” When it is not a range, and one number is the change in price and the other is a final price, use a comma: “Busch Gardens will increase single-day ticket costs by $4, to $89 for adults.” And when the numbers include both the new price and the old price, put the new price (“to”) first: “Soda prices are going up to $3, from $1.” (That comma, by the way, is optional here.)
Now, take this report:
A one day ticket to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom now costs $95 for anybody ten years or older. That’s up from $89 representing a 6.7 percent increase. When you add sales tax to the cost, the ticket launches over the $100 mark to $101.18. That child under ten (but older than three) will cost you$94.79 after taxes.
That paragraph has ten numbers in it! Worse than that, the numbers represent five different things: time (one-day), price ($95, $89, $101.18, $94.79), age (ten, ten, three), a (useless) benchmark number ($100), and percentage change (6.7 percent). Each time the reader sees a number, she has to readjust her thinking as to what that number represents.
Don’t make her do that. If you can’t keep the number of numbers down to about three or four per paragraph, at least make them parallel:
A one day ticket to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom now costs $95 for anybody ten years or older. That’s up from $89.
Once you add sales tax to the cost, the ticket will cost you $101.18. That child under ten (but older than three) will cost you$94.79 after taxes.
If you must give the percentage increase, you can do it this way:
A one day ticket to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is going up by6.7 percent, to $95 for anybody ten years or older, from $89.
Next week, in our final installment on math (were those cheers?), we’ll talk about making numbers more digestible for readers.