What’s in a Number?

The Top 5 Breakfast Sandwiches in L.A.

12 Reasons to Hire a Wedding Planner

11 Grammar Lessons From the CIA Stylebook

10 Fun Uses for Old Card Catalogs

9 Bizarre New Snacks to Try

5 Weirdest Gins and Vodkas You Can Buy

4 Words Parents and Kids Should Never Say

What do all these headlines have in common? That’s right – numbers.(1) Now read them again without the numbers. Are the headlines any better or worse? Reasons to Hire a Wedding Planner. Fun Uses for Old Card Catalogs. Weirdest Gins and Vodkas You Can Buy. What’s wrong with those?(2)

I never understand number-crunching headlines.(3) I always find myself asking, “Why 10 fun uses and not 9 or 11? And couldn’t the Wedding Planner have stopped at 10? Or bumped it up to a baker’s dozen?”(4) Someone somewhere must have done a study revealing that if a headline has a number, more people will read it.(5)

Maybe it helps people plan their day: “5 breakfast sandwiches and I’m done! That should be just about right for my morning dump. I’ll save the CIA grammar one for lunch hour.”

There are a few things I know after years of editing, and one of them is this:(6) If you mention a number in the headline, it is a solemn vow to the reader. There should be that many fun uses for old card catalogs – no more, no less. All the readers with OCD are checking.(7)

Even more annoying are the headlines that combine letters and numbers: The 3 Cs of Forklift Safety.(8) Or worse, the ones that try to help you remember the number of points with a stupid acronym: The CHILD Plan for Preventing Tantrums. Invariably, one of the letters is an Elastic Man Stretch (I – Invent something for the child to do.), or the author calls it the CHiLD Plan because she can’t think up an I any better than “Invent something for the child to do.” (9)

Maybe this fixation with numbers began with David Letterman’s top 10 lists. Maybe it was Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. Maybe it was even pop music’s Top 20 or childhood’s Ten Little Indians rhyme (or, I suppose, Agatha Christie’s mystery novel).(10)

However it started, it doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon. There are probably 5 or 14 or 600 reasons for that. I’m sure I’ll be reading about them all by next month, if not sooner.(11)

(1)  Also, they’re all real headlines, even the one about the CIA Stylebook.

(2) Nothing. Except the gin and vodka one. The only flavored gin you need is lime and the only flavor to add to vodka is more vodka. A friend once wrote a song in which he mentioned “cranapple schnapps.” He had no idea how prophetic he was being.

(3) Though I am fond of numbers. I even celebrate Pi Day, March 14, yearly.

(4) 2 Reasons No One Says “Baker’s Dozen Anymore.” No one knows that it means 13, and bakers don’t give away free cupcakes anyway, especially if they’re for a gay wedding. Plus, the bakery boxes are all made to hold 12. Oops. I guess that would be 3 reasons.

(5) There’s probably also a study that says whether the number should be odd or even, though our sample headline writers don’t seem to have read it. I know that in graphic design, odd numbers are preferred – 3 bubbles filled with text, 7 scallops in the top border, and so on. I think it’s a rule invented by the same people who insist on 3-letter acronyms: LOL, FTW, AAA, WWW, TIL, RLS, IBS, OCD, ADD, WTF? I’m just glad there’s a website where I can look up what they all mean.

(6) Another one is this: Those hyper-annoying cards that fall out on your feet when you’re thumbing through magazines? They have a name. They’re blow-in cards. No one knows who invented them, so you can’t send hate mail. The kind that don’t fall out on your feet are called bind-in cards. No one knows who invented those either, so you can’t send a thank-you card.

(7) With any luck, the editors, nearly all of whom are at least a little OCD, will be checking.

(8) Conceal the keys. Conceal the keys. Conceal the keys.

(9) Invest in a sugarless candy’s stock. Insist your spouse take your child to the grocery. Instruct your child in anger management. Increase your dosage of Xanax.

(10) Although I expect that today’s children recite more politically correct counting rhymes and no mystery editor would let such a title through these days.

(11) Sorry about all the footnote numbers. They probably made this post more complicated than necessary.

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