The 14th Rule
I don’t remember much about the songs I wrote when I was a teenager and hoped that playing the guitar would help me talk to girls. But this morning I caught myself singing a couple of lines from one of them:
“The sky falls in but you’re exactly the same,
And 41 angels turn acceptance to blame.”
Why would these lines stick in my head?
For all intents and purposes they are just another bog standard rhyming couplet. The structure is awkward. I’m pretty sure I got the melody from something I heard in an episode of Buffy the Vampire slayer. Maybe that’s why I was singing about angels.
Wherever I stole it from, it’s the angels that make the lines memorable. Not because they are angels, although angels are pretty good for cheap imagery. But because the song isn’t about an angel. It’s not about some angels. It’s not about all the angels (although I’m surprised I managed to resist that particularly cheesy piece of assonance*). It’s not about 39 angels, or 43; it’s 41 angels that turn acceptance to blame.
Numbers make things sound important. Specific numbers make things sound specific. They make them real. They invest them with a significance they often don’t deserve. The rhetorical power of numbers is a real problem in social sciences, and more so in journalism, where even the most educated and engaged people can get sucked into believing something because it has a number attached to it. I won’t get into the lies, damned lies and statistics thing, not least because I am a huge believer in the power and utility of good statistical analysis. But instead consider the difference in feeling between the following:
It’s fine – there is virtually no chance of the test coming back positive.
It’s fine – I haven’t seen a test come back positive in the last twenty years.
It’s fine – There is a one in eight thousand chance of the test coming back positive.
These three statements may well mean exactly the same thing. But they don’t feel the same. How they feel can depend a little on your relationship with probability. Maybe it’s because I still buy lottery tickets, even after years of studying economics, but one in eight thousand manages to sound scarier to me than the others.** I guess I’m with Han Solo on the whole issue of appropriate times to be told the odds.***
So using a number, or even substituting one type of number for another (how bad is a 100% increase in crime?), can dramatically change the feel of text even when the factual notion we are conveying is the same. Mark Forsyth, in his rather wonderful book on rhetoric The Elements of Eloquence****, calls this “The 14th Rule” (do you see what he did there?). It has a long literary antecedence, from the bible to Bob Dylan and beyond. Sticking a number next to something makes it sound like it must be true.
Great writers have been using numbers as a kind of fancy adjective for centuries. That means us mediocre writers get to use them as well. There was no particular reason for it to be 41 angels rather than 64 or 93 (I thought it sounded better). The real purpose was to make the presence of the angels, the intervention of the divine, feel real, to make it stand out and be memorable. Or at least memorable enough that I could remember it in the shower this morning.
* Is it alliteration or assonance if the words start with the same vowel sound?
** Yeah, yeah, yeah, utility/risk/magnitude of loss/magnitude scaling, blah, blah, blah. This is not an economics blog, and I am resisting the temptation to turn it into one. I promise.
*** A complete lie, I’m afraid. I always want to be told the odds. I just wanted to pretend to be a little more like Han Solo and a little less like C3PO.
**** Forsyth M, The Elements of Eloquence, Icon (London: 2013).