percent or %

In today’s post I discuss when to spell out percent and when to use the % symbol.

In general, use this format: a numeral followed by the word percent.

The unemployment rate remained at 7.3 percent.
The cost of a New York cab ride rose by 17 percent on Tuesday.

Use the % symbol in a scientific document or if your writing contains a lot of statistics. So, in the following paragraph it is appropriate to use %.

As Quebeckers began voting across the province, a Forum Research poll has the PQ capturing 36% of the vote, giving the party a large lead over the Liberals, who have jumped to second place with 29%. The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) follow with 25%, the Québec solidaire at 6%, with other parties capturing 3%.

(As an aside, if you’re an editor, you will want to check the math and make sure we do not end up with more than 100%. In this example, the total comes to 99% (36+29+25+6+3) so you might want to ask the author why it’s not 100%. Is the missing 1% undecided?)

Note that there is no space between the numeral and the % symbol:

not: 100 %

Note also that whether you use the word percent or the % symbol, you always use a numeral:

100% or 100 percent
not: one hundred % or one hundred percent

Finally, do not confuse the word percent with percentage, which is a general term similar to amount or number. Note also the expression percentage points.

Percentage of popular vote, by party. (heading for a table)
That percentage would have increased to 20% by 2020.
Air Canada said it had a record load factor of 87.9%, up 0.2 percentage points from 2011.

Till next time.


This post is based on The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.), paragraphs 9.18–9.20.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos

Commas with dates: Lessons from Queen Victoria

A belated Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadian readers.

In today’s lesson we’ll review the rules for punctuating dates—specifically, the use of commas with dates. (The Canadian history lesson is bonus.)

1. To express a specific date, use a cardinal number (1, 2, 3, etc.), even if the number is pronounced as an ordinal number (first, second, third, etc.)*

Canada Day is observed on July 1 unless that date falls on a Sunday, in which case July 2 is the statutory holiday.

2. An exception to this rule is when a day is mentioned by itself, without the month or year; in that case, use an ordinal number and spell it out.

The Charlottetown Conference began on September 1, 1864. It adjourned on the ninth.

3. In the month-day-year system (American), use a comma before the year; in the day-month-year system (British), do not use a comma.

The federal Dominion of Canada was formed on July 1, 1867.
The federal Dominion of Canada was formed on 1 July 1867.

4. In the month-day-year system, use a comma both before and after the year if it occurs in the middle of a clause; in the day-month-year system, do not use any commas.†

The Dominion of Canada came into being on July 1, 1867, upon royal proclamation by Queen Victoria.
The Dominion of Canada came into being on 1 July 1867 upon royal proclamation by Queen Victoria.

5. If only the month and year are given (without a day), do not use a comma (this applies to either system).

British Columbia joined Confederation in July 1871.

6. When the day of the week is added and the date is essential, don’t add a comma after the day of the week. If the date is non-essential, add a comma after the day of the week.‡

By Wednesday September 7, 1864, the delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island gave a positive answer to the Canadian delegation to join them.
Since July 1 fell on a Sunday this year, the statutory holiday was Monday, July 2.

7. If a specific day (such as a holiday) is given with a year, do not use a comma (in either system).

Canada Day 1980 marked a special occasion because this is when “O Canada” was established as Canada’s national anthem.

8. To avoid ambiguity, do not use all numerals for dates in text (such as 7/1/1967—which in the US means July 1, 1967, but elsewhere January 7, 1967); instead, spell out the month.

not: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on 2/11/1867.
not: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on 11/2/1867.
but: The British North America Act was presented to Queen Victoria on February 11, 1867.

9. If a date comes at the beginning of a sentence, use a comma after the date.

On March 29, 1867, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.
On 29 March 1867, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.
On March 29, Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to Confederation.

10. Finally, always use numerals for a year unless the year begins a sentence, in which case spell it out (because you never start a sentence with a numeral, as we saw earlier).

Canadian Confederation refers to the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
Eighteen sixty-seven can be considered the year Canada was born.

Standing guard for proper punctuation,

These ten rules were compiled from various paragraphs in the Chicago Manual of Style. The example sentences were either taken or adapted from the following online sources:

*Unfortunately, Queen Victoria did not heed this rule when she proclaimed on March 29, 1867:

“We do ordain, declare, and command that on and after the First day of July, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-seven, the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, shall form and be One Dominion, under the name of Canada.”

Of course, she’s excused since I hadn’t posted this blog yet.

(She also spelled out the name of the year in the middle of the sentence, which breaks rule #10—not to mention her excessive use of capitalization.)

†Note that I said in the middle of a clause, not the middle of a sentence, for even in the day-month-year system, the year may be followed by a comma if the date occurs at the end of a main clause:

The Dominion of Canada came into being on 1 July 1867, when three British colonies united and became Canada’s first four provinces.

(see also the example with rule 9)

‡Admittedly, this distinction between essential and non-essential is somewhat fuzzy. I haven’t been able to find a better explanation, however. Any advice, anyone?

(Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Discretion is advised when using this website.)

Numbers: Numerals or words?

Numbers can be expressed either as numerals (539; 4.49; 3,689) or as words (four, seventeen).* When do you use which?

Here are the general rules†:

1) spell out the numbers one through hundred

2) spell out round numbers with hundreds, thousands, hundred thousands, millions

So you would use:

seventy-eight; 3,589; 762; three million

However, percentages always take numerals:

25% or 25 percent
not: twenty-five percent or twenty-five %

(Note that there is no space in 25%.)

In fact, abbreviations always take numerals:

47¢ (and not .47¢—unless of course you really mean less than half a cent!)

On the other hand, numbers with centuries are always spelled out:

the twenty-first century
not: the 21st century

Finally, there’s a third general rule that’s often flouted:

3) don’t begin a sentence with a numeral

Thus, you will want to avoid something like this:

97 Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

You could change this to:

Ninety-seven Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

Another solution (which avoids tampering with the actual title of the book) is to recast the sentence so it doesn’t start with the number:

Don Campbell’s 97 Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

Following these three simple rules will help you steer clear of 90 percent of the potholes with numbers!


*I am using the word numeral in the restricted sense that the Chicago Manual of Style uses it as non-spelled out forms. Other references (like the Canadian Oxford Dictionary) use the word numeral to refer to both the spelled out and non-spelled out forms.

†taken from the Chicago Manual of Style chapter 9

(Image at top courtesy of scottchan.)