An American Editor

August 3, 2015

Numbers in Sentences: Customizing PerfectIt to Find What You Want

by Daniel Heuman

PerfectIt’s test of numbers in sentences generates more questions from customers than any of PerfectIt’s other tests. Here are some (anonymized) questions that users have sent:

“When assessing inconsistencies in how numbers are handled, PerfectIt finds, say, 4 instances, when there are 10 it should have found.”

“My version of PerfectIt isn’t finding numbers. Is there a fix?”

“Why is PerfectIt missing the number ‘2’ in a sentence?”

What do all these queries have in common? They all assume that PerfectIt’s test of numbers in sentences should find every number in a document. But PerfectIt doesn’t work that way. To understand why, it helps to explain the philosophy behind PerfectIt.

How PerfectIt Works

PerfectIt is an add-in for MS Word. It checks documents in one of two ways:

  • It looks for inconsistencies. For example, if the number 3 appears in numerals in one sentence, but the number four is spelled out in another sentence, that’s an inconsistency.
  • It can be set to check user preferences. For example, you can set it to make sure that all numbers over 20 appear in numerals.

By default, PerfectIt checks consistency in three separate groups: 1-10, 11-20, and 21-100. PerfectIt checks for inconsistency within those groups, but not between them. So, for example, it would check if the numbers 1 through 10 appear in numerals and spelled out. It would not compare the appearance of the number 4 to the number 16 since those are in separate groups. Some style guides work 0-9, 10-19, and 20-99, so you can also set PerfectIt to look at those groups instead. In any case, PerfectIt goes through and alerts you to any inconsistencies. It shows each location and suggests one is likely to be wrong (leaving you to decide which).

If you set PerfectIt to enforce a preference, you can set the preference for each of the groups (1-10, 11-20 and 21-100). So, for example, you could set the numbers 0 to 9 to appear spelled out, then the numbers 10 to 19 and 20 to 99 could be set to numerals. PerfectIt will then go through and alert you to any instances that do not conform to that preference (and you can decide which to change). This video explains how to set those preferences.

What PerfectIt Finds

So going back to the users’ questions, the first thing to understand is that PerfectIt tests for numbers in sentences (not numbers in other parts of the document). If you want to find all numbers in a document, you can do that with Word’s wildcards (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars). PerfectIt, on the other hand, specifically focuses on numbers in sentences.

So let’s say we set PerfectIt to spell out numbers less than 20. With that preference, how many numbers would you expect PerfectIt to find in this paragraph?

As described in Chapter 4, we started our work in 1996 when we were just 18 years old. Since then, a simple experiment that takes only 7 seconds has been copied by over 3 million people.

What do you think? There are four numbers under 20, so should PerfectIt find all four and suggest spelling them out? The answer is none. PerfectIt doesn’t alert you to numbers in sentences that it “thinks” are intended to be that way. So it won’t check numbers following the word “Chapter.” It won’t check numbers that indicate someone’s age. It won’t check measurements. And it won’t check numbers before the word “million” or “billion.”

Before you write us a letter of complaint (we’ve had several about this), think about the advantages of that functionality. Why should PerfectIt show every number? If that’s what you want, you can do that with Word’s wildcards (the pattern to search for is “<[0-9]{1,}>”). But showing every number would slow users down. More importantly, the more false positives that PerfectIt displays, the more likely it is that users will skip results. So focusing on locations that are most likely to be errors is how good software should work.

Fine-Tuning PerfectIt

Not everyone works the same way. So with all the queries around this test, we decided to change things in PerfectIt 3. PerfectIt 3 gives users the ability to fine-tune the test of numbers in sentences to work in exactly the way the user wants.

The figure below shows the Fine-Tuning tab of PerfectIt’s style sheet editor (double-click on image to enlarge it). It gives four new options for customizing how PerfectIt treats numbers in this test.

PerfectIt Style Sheet Editor

PerfectIt Style Sheet Editor

The four new options are:

  • Skip Numbers Followed By: This is the list of words that PerfectIt will look at after each number. If any of these words appear, then that number will be skipped by PerfectIt. Each word is separated by the “|” symbol (as seen in the image). You can add words, take individual words out or even take all the words out.
  • Skip Numbers Preceded By: This is identical to the list of words after numbers, but it’s the list that PerfectIt will check that appear before numbers.
  • Skip Numbers Joined By: Because numerals are usually used for comparisons and ranges, PerfectIt skips instances such as “between 3 and 4.” It does that based on the word in between the two numbers. You can change, add to, or remove those in-between words.
  • Skip Extra Words Found Preceding Numbers: PerfectIt looks for words like “Chapter” that often precede numbers. It also scans for other words that frequently appear before numbers and attempts to automatically figure out what those words are (even if they are not listed above). Tick this box if you want it to look for similar words; untick it if you don’t.

With these options, you can set PerfectIt to find as many (or as few) matches as you want. But remember, just because you can fine-tune PerfectIt, it doesn’t mean that you have to! These are features that we added for the small minority who want to alter these settings. For everyone else, the best approach is not to even look at these settings. It just helps to understand what PerfectIt will find (and what it won’t).

Learning More

There are lots of other tests that you can customize in PerfectIt, and our series of video tutorials covers all of them.

Daniel Heuman is the founder and CEO of Intelligent Editing, and the author of PerfectIt. If you have a PC with MS Word, you can get a 30-day free trial of PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing.

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