<< back to the archive list

May 30th, 2007

Pangs or pains? / writing 1 or one, etc.

by Barbara Wallraff

George Durham, of Seattle, writes: “In a discussion this evening I said, ‘It pangs me ...’ Upon hearing this, my wife insisted that the correct phrase is ‘It pains me.’ We agree the two are synonymous but differ about which is the original or more correct phrase. A few online searches turn up more instances of ‘It pains me,’ but I’m not convinced. Thoughts?”

Dear George: I don’t know of any famous, oft-repeated quotation that includes either “panged me” or “pained me.” I’ve discovered, though, that the British adventure novelist Tobias Smollett would probably side with you. He wrote, “The news of your misfortune panged me to the very intrails,” in a book he published in 1748. But Edmund Spenser, the 16th-century poet, would side with your wife, and so would Bram Stoker, who, in his 1897 horror novel “Dracula,” wrote, “My face is ghastly pale, and my throat pains me.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of “pang” as a verb is “now rare.” An Internet search I made showed “It pains me” to be more than 1,000 times as popular as “It pangs me.” I’ll leave it up to you whether to stick to your guns -- and be ready to explain to the people you talk to that you said “It pangs me” on purpose -- or fall in with the crowd.

Karen Raymond, of Eastport, Mich., writes: “Not until I was 62 years old did I learn that single-digit numbers are supposed to be spelled out -- for example, ‘eight.’ Because I’m retired and have way too much free time on my hands, that has been bothering me. I thought if anyone could tell me why, it would be you. Why do single-digit numbers have to be written as words?”

Dear Karen: Well, for 1 thing ... See how bad that looks? Single-digit numbers often turn up in places where arithmetic or measurement is beside the point. Consider expressions like “Kill two birds with one stone” and “Three’s company, and four’s a crowd.” If you wrote those with numerals, they’d practically jump off the page and shout, “Hey, we’re numbers!”

Numbers of two or more digits are different for a few reasons. One is that they’re more likely to turn up in arithmetical or measurement-related contexts, where numerals seem natural: “The United Nations has 192 member states,” “Eastport is about 270 miles from Detroit.” Then, too, the longer the number, the more space is saved by not spelling it out. Not only that, but longer numbers written with numerals are easier for readers to take in: Compare “nineteen ninety-nine” with “1999.”

Stylebooks that cover literary writing sometimes recommend spelling out numbers up to 100 and also round numbers like “a hundred” and “a million.” Stylebooks that cover technical writing often recommend using numerals for all numbers in measurement-related contexts. And people who write lots of text messages, or want others to think they do, delight in space-saving abbreviations like “Happy Birthday 2 U.” But when it comes to general-purpose prose, your rule of spelling out single-digit numbers and using numerals for two or more digits is a good one.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list