Pick a Number

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic ode to learning, the rulers of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis are at loggerheads, each believing that words and numbers, respectively, are paramount. “Never mention numbers here,” King Azaz the Unabridged declares. “Only use them when we absolutely have to.”

In actuality, numbers play a critical role in the wordsmith’s craft. Much of English poetry, including dramatic verse, is metrical and thus reducible to lines, feet, and syllables, most commonly expressed through iambic pentameter, a line with five feet, each containing two syllables — the first unstressed and the second stressed. Shakespeare was a master of this form, as in “unEAsy LIES the HEAD that WEARS the CROWN.”

But even in the realm of prose, where structure is imposed through grammar rather than through meter, writers strive for euphony, selecting and combining words in ways that hinge on the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in play. One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s best known lines is, in fact, iambic: “the ONly THING we HAVE to FEAR is FEAR itSELF.” The same point could have been made by telling Americans in the depths of the Great Depression that “fear is more to be dreaded than the causes of such acute anxiety,” but that would have fallen flatter than an invitation to buy stocks in 1929.

Numbers influence our prose in other ways. It is, for example, helpful to explicitly enumerate, thereby both differentiating and relating, two or more elements in a text, as President Christopher L. Eisgruber did in a lecture on “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education” in 2013. He told his audience: “I want to start, however, by telling you four short stories. Three of them are plucked from The New York Times, and I expect that at least two of them will be familiar to some of you. The fourth is about Princeton, and I expect it will surprise almost all of you.” In this passage, every sentence contains at least one number whose purpose is purely organizational, and on four other occasions in the course of the lecture, numbers are used with the same intent.

It is likewise difficult to write at length without some reference to quantity, as in “some of you” and “almost all of you” in the sentences quoted above. From A Tale of Two Cities to Three Men in a Boat to The Thirty-Nine Steps to A Thousand Acres, novelists have placed numbers at the center of their plots, while countless others have quantified their worlds in smaller ways.

This process takes more subtle forms as well, as Roy Peter Clark cleverly points out in Writing Tools: “Use one for power. Use two for comparison, contrast. Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.” In other words, whether we are referring to the love of our life; apples and oranges; government of the people, by the people, for the people; or Airedale Terriers, Border Terriers, Irish Terriers, and Russell Terriers, we are implicitly making numerical decisions. We can even point to the so-called rule of three for validation when we bow to the ancient practice of creating triplets that convey the fullness of a subject without sacrificing comprehensibility.

And so, though English majors may shun mathematics, they cannot escape the latter’s fundamental reach if, to use a tricolon, their words are to inform, inspire, and impress.