Look, there’s just some breaking stories that you can only read here thanks to the deep investigative journalism that my crack team of journalists do. In this case – plugging two digit numbers into Google n-gram.
I don’t know what I expected the graph to look like but apparently peak numbers-in-books was sometime in the late 1980s after which the bubble burst plunging books into a deepening two-digit-numbers-as-words recession.
The decline is present in both the US and the UK:
And is present for three digit numbers also:
OK but what about single digits? I hear you ask. Surely the blue-chip of the numerical world are still going strong? Nope. Number 1 obviously has been number 1 for sometime but at the turn of the millenium, even it felt the decline.
Four digit numbers? That’s a whole other ball game. The four digit market is dominated by YEARS. So peak 2000 was shortly after the year 2000 (this impacts two digit numbers a bit as well – 90 gets a bit of a boost in the 1990s).
Here is what I think is going on. The internet and the proliferation of software for sharing numerical data has created other avenues for publishing numerical data. Consequently printed documents with really large amounts of numerical data have become a smaller proportion of books published. Data sets are more likely to be made availbleas downloadable files (text, CSV etc) rather than as printed volumes.
A way to test that hypothesis would be to look at a corpus that was only FICTION. Changes in how data is published shouldn’t impact fiction! However, style habits may impact numbers written as digits – the normal prescription is that smaller numbers should be written in words. So, I’ll look at the number one hundred and twenty three as a test case – it should be written as digits normally.
Unfortunately…the results were inconclusive. When I clicked on the examples the “English Fiction” corpus was drawing from they were all NON-FICTION. Grrrrr Google giving me free tools to explore data to my hearts content and you make them not entirely perfect!
So, I can’t definitively tell you were the numbers have gone. Sorry.