Writing numbers on the Web

By Murray Bourne, 17 Apr 2007

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox article today, Show Numbers as Numerals, is interesting for those of us who need to communicate mathematics via the Web.

After conducting eye-tracking research on Web users, Nielsen points out the differences between numeral writing for print ("Don't begin sentences with a numeral, use words instead") and the Web (use a numeral).

A key thing here is that most users scan Web pages and rarely read everything. (Actually, isn't that true of print these days, as well?)

Nielsen raises the following interesting point:

Instead, [Web users] scan the text and pick out headlines, highlighted words, bulleted lists, and links. [...] There are a few exceptions to this rule: lower-literacy users can't scan, while higher-literacy users read the entire page if they're really interested or in desperate need of the information.

I've noticed this - many students have trouble quickly scanning a page and gleaning the main facts.

Back to numbers and numerals vs words. What came to mind was my page on Scientific Notation, where I extol the advantages of a more convenient way to write large numbers.

I'm glad Nielsen mentions the difference between US "billions" and other-country "billions".

There's also an internationalization issue here: "billion" represents a thousand millions in American English, but a million millions in many European languages.

We really should standardise (oops, I mean standardize) the usage of "billion", "trillion" and the like.

In summary, I wonder why we bother writing complete sentences - does anyone read everything...?

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