Grammar and Style/Numbers and Units

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Introduction

As science communicators, you will often have to include highly specific information in your written materials. For example, you might be writing a lab report in which you provide numerical details about the method you used in your experiment. There are some rules to follow if you want to do this effectively and achieve your basic goal of enhancing the readability of your work.

In a few cases, you might have to make a judgment call as to which rule should be followed; when working with numbers especially, there are sometimes occasions when rules from different style guides clash. Having said this, if you plan your work with clarity in mind, most sentences can be simplified to follow the important, universally accepted rules. When this is not possible, you should follow the one golden rule: Always be consistent in your style.

Some Basic Rules for Working with Numbers

Rule Example
Spell out small numbers (one to nine). I performed three experiments yesterday.
Use numerals for larger numbers (10 +),except when beginning a sentence. Mike performed 12 experiments.

Fifteen days later, he collected the data.

Use numerals for counts, percentages, decimals, magnifications, and official scales. We found 8 mice, 12 rats, and 37 rabbits. Mammal populations here have grown by about 30 % in the last five years.
Use spaces to make numbers with many digits easier to interpret (do not use commas as they represent the decimal marker in many European and other countries). One space separates three figures, both before and after the decimal, though a four-digit number should not be written with a space. There are 5194 new species of insect discovered each year. Before rounding, our experimental value was determined to be 98 765.4321 µF. The Boltzmann Constant is defined to be 1.380 649 × 10-23 J/K.

There are approximately 7.5 million insect species on Earth.

Avoid having two distinct numbers written next to one another, most simply by rearranging a sentence. We tested 15 different 19-year-olds not ‘we tested 15 19-year-olds.‘
Spell out names and nouns. The First Law of Thermodynamics.
Use numerals for dates. For short date format, YYYY-MM-DD is advised. On March 4, we have an exam. Examination date: 2020-03-04.
Use numerals for times,

except when writing ‘o’clock’ or ‘hours’

The exam begins at 9:30 (09:30),

and finishes at one o’clock (thirteen hours).

Use numerals for currency references. My lunch cost $4.35, but the chips were only 85 cents.


Always remember the one golden rule of being consistent in your style. If two rules clash in one sentence, you will have to favour one over the other. Make sure you continue to favour that one over the other throughout your text.

Some Important Rules for Working with Units

You should abbreviate units of scientific measurement in your writing, but remember that it is very important to use the correct abbreviations. At best, erroneous abbreviations give the impression that you don’t care about your work, but they also have the potential to confuse your readers.

The table below shows the correct symbols for many commonly used scientific measurements, as well as some of the most important and commonly used rules governing their use in science writing.


Scientific Measurement Symbol
Mass (gram, kilogram)
g, kg
Force/pressure (newton, kilonewton, pascal, hectopascal, kilopascal)
N, kN, Pa, hPa, kPa
Volume (millilitre, litre)
ml, l (L)
Temperature (kelvin, degree celsius)
K, ˚C
Time (millisecond, second, minute, hour, hertz)
ms, s, min, h, hz
Length (millimetre, centimetre, metre, kilometre)
mm, cm, m, km
Electricity (ampere, coulomb, volt, ohm, farad, henry, siemens)
A, C, V, Ω, F, H, S
Magnetism (weber, tesla)
Wb, T
Light Intensity (candela, lux, lumen)
cd, lx, lm
Amount of Substance (millimole, mole)
mmol, mol
Energy (joule, watt)
J, W
Angle (degree, arcminute, arcsecond, radian, steradian)
°, ', ", rad, sr
Radioactivity (becquerel, gray, sievert)
Bq, Gy, Sv
Catalytic activity (katal)
kat
Rules for Appropriate Use Example
Do not pluralize unit abbreviations.
The chemicals only weighed 46 g.
Only use a period after abbreviations if they end a sentence.
The chemicals only weighed 46 g. Compound A was 30 g lighter than Compound B.
Put a space between numerals and unit abbreviations, unless using angular degrees, arcminutes, or arcseconds. The space rule also applies to degrees Celsius and percentages.
The chemicals only weighed 46 g. Compound A was approximately 20 % as heavy as Compound B before burning at 21 ˚C. The coordinates of the UBC Thunderbirds Baseball diamond are 49°15'21"N 123°14'28"W.
Do not capitalize unit symbols unless they are named after people (e.g. kelvin, joule).

Litres have been granted an exception to this rule due to 'l' appearing similar to the number '1' and so can be written as either 'l' or 'L.' Millilitres (and other multiples) should still be written as 'ml.'

The chemicals only weigh 46 g.
Absolute zero (0 K) is equal to -273.15 ˚C.
Grams are abbreviated to ‘g’ in writing.

Video Resource

For a recap and for some extra information about the importance of using numbers and units correctly in your science writing, please watch Grammar Squirrel’s video on the UBC Science Writing YouTube channel.

We then suggest you complete the quick quiz (below) to see whether you have mastered some of the important skills relating to the use of numbers and units in your writing.


Numbers and Units Quick Quiz

1) Read the short paragraph below and spot the errors with the numbers and units, before replacing/rewriting them in the correct format (8 marks):

50 years ago, the Earth’s rainforests were in a much better state; now, due to deforestation, experts predict that up to 50 thousand species go extinct each year, which means that 1 quarter of all species might be gone in another 50 years. As a measure of how rapidly forests can be lost, logging in Amazonian Brazil rose by 70% in just twelve months, between 2017 and 2018. The Amazon is an example of a tropical rainforest, which means monthly temperatures exceed 18 Celsius and there is at least 168 cms of rain each year. Incredibly, in some years, these forests receive more than 1000 centimetre of rain.


2) Read the two sentences below and suggest how these might be confusing (1 mark each), before re-writing them to remove this potential confusion (1 mark each).

A) Please pass me those 10 10 ml pipettes.
B) I need to shake the reagents within 10 m after they first mixed.


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Quick Quiz Answer Key

To check your answers and see whether you are now a wizard at writing succinctly and dealing with jargon, access the answer key here.


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