Quantitative Reasoning in Writing

Suppose you want to include some mortality statistics in the introductory section of a paper about the Black Plague in fourteenth-century Europe.

Poor: “There were 25 million deaths.”

Do you teach a class that includes writing? Do your students ever include numbers in their writing? Often when students writing includes numbers, these numbers have insufficient context to provide meaningful insight. Consider the following example:

This statement lacks information about when and where these deaths occurred, or who was affected (e.g., certain age groups or locales).  It also fails to mention whether these deaths were from Black Plague alone or whether other causes also contributed to that figure.

Better: “During the fourteenth century, 25 million people died in Europe.”

Although this statement specifies the time and place, it still does not clarify whether the deaths were from all causes or from the plague alone.

Best: “When the Black Plague hit Europe in the latter half of the fourteenth century, it took the lives of 25 million people, young and old, city dwellers and those living in the countryside. The disease killed about one-quarter of Europe’s total population at the time (Mack, n.d.).”

This sentence clearly conveys the time, place, and attributes of the people affected by the plague, and provides information to convey the scale of that figure.

Modified from The Chicago Guide to Writing about Multivariate Analysis, Second Edition, by Jane E. Miller

Providing students with a clear demonstration of how to effectively present numbers in context while writing can serve as a simple learning tool and may aid development of their writing.

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