One of the first writing rules I learned was that I can’t use numerals to start a sentence. But in recent years, my certainty about that rule has been shaken.
Headlines can start with numerals
First, I learned that it’s OK to start an article headline with a numeral, at least in Associated Press (AP) style, because AP style only uses numerals—not spelled out numbers—in headlines. I operate mostly in a world of AP style. A headline isn’t a sentence, but it’s the next closest thing.
Years and 401(k) as exceptions in AP style
More recently, I stumbled across this rule in the online AP Stylebook (subscription required): “Years are an exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 2013 was a very good year.” Wow, that’s a big change for me!
Also, it turns out that I can start a sentence with the term “401(k)” and be in compliance with AP style. Here’s the relevant rule:
CMOS takes a different approach
I can explain my ignorance partly in terms of my learning style rules in college and graduate school under teachers who used the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Plus, I used CMOS for my Ph.D. dissertation.
Here’s what CMOS says about this topic:
Readers are confused
I know I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Look at the responses I received when I polled my LinkedIn connections about this topic.
Am I going to change my writing style to accommodate this new information? Maybe sometimes. In general, however, I’ll try to write in a way that doesn’t require putting 2022 or 401(k) at the start of a sentence.
Sure, it’s right under AP style to start a sentence that way. However, there will be CMOS followers and others who look at that sentence and think, “Susan, that’s wrong.” I blogged about this problem in “Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough.”
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Note: I edited this post on Sept. 30, 2022.