Using Number Symbols in Writing

Originally this blog post published July 2016 on the Writers Ink Books website.  WIS reruns it because, after all, reruns are totally watchable.
For those looking for the Grammar Monster blog series, look for the chart link at the end of the blog.  In that chart you will find the important background lessons that students need before the Grammar Monster comes out of the cave.

You Can Do Magic:  Paint with Numbers

In the last blog, “Let’s Play” (in 2016, remember, on the WIB website, not this one), I mentioned that working in threes is the preferred number for repetition.  Three is that mysterious number in the realm of symbols, and it has great influence on the audience.

3’s are significant, whether spoken or written or visual.  Most will “hear” the first mention of an idea but think nothing of it.  A second mention sounds like coincidence.  The third mention is magic for the readers and audience.

A good comic will set up a joke with an unusual phrase, cycle back to that phrase in a later joke–just in passing, then hit that unusual phrase for the clincher of a closing joke.   Expectation has been created with the second mention and fulfilled with the third.  The humor then has a greater effect on the audience.

Ron White is the master of this extended use of threes. [Don’t click if you don’t like curse words. ;)] Listen for the third different use of “tater”.

So, that’s the effect of the 3 in repetition.  What about the other numbers?

Well, numbers are important in the world of literature (and religion, both so closely tied together in their origins that their devices [tropes] take on mythic gravitas.  Wow, that was a side excursion and a half).

The symbolic meaning of numbers (and colors–coming in the next blog) solidified in primitive cultures.  We can see the influence of the natural world and our own bodies in their development into virtually universal meanings.  Many numbers have both positive and negative connotations.

So, here are the meanings I have gleaned:

First Hand
  • 1 = the Self, of course.  Solitary / lonely  (positive / negative).  Independence, self-reliance.  Rank, descending or ascending (I’m number 1!  or the starting [lowest] point).

    the Three Norns by HLM: the Crone, the Matron, the Maiden or Past / Present / Future
  • 2 = companionship, love.  Deception > two-faced.
  • 3 = mystery > e.g., the Moirae, the three Fates of ancient Greece; the three Erinyes ( the Furies who are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone); the three Norns; the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; past / present / future;  Plato’s tripartite being: mind / body / soul.
  • 4 = the number representing Earth > e.g., north / south / east / west; the basic elements of earth / air / water / fire; and proteins / carbs / lipids / acids; the luck of a four-leaf clover; the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the four mathematical operations; the four Beatles.
  • 5 = 1/2 of 10 and thus halfway to completion; the limits of aspiration.  The musical staff is on five lines;  it takes both treble and bass staffs to create full harmony.  The five Sikh symbols.  The pentagram.
Second Hand
  • 6 = doubled mystery > secrecy, magic
  • 7 = perfection, absolute.
  • 8 = rebirth (one more than perfection > starting over), renewal OR as 8 is between 5 and 10, on the road to completion.
  • 9 = 3 + 3 + 3 = intensified mystery.
  • 10 = completion, fulfillment.
Three Extras
  • 11 = transition, thresholds, the liminal space. Over time, 11 became associated with death, which is the greatest of thresholds to cross.  BTW, literature pre-supposes that man has an existence after death, whatever form that existence might take; so it’s this existence, crossing the threshold, and the after-existence.  In literature, death is not a stoppage–unless it’s modern literature.  Oh, well.
  • 12 = man’s relationship to the Divine, in whatever form the Divine takes > 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Christ, 12 Signs of the Greek Zodiac, 12 cycles of the Chinese Years, 12 chief gods of Olympus, and more.
  • 13 = considered unlucky because man steps beyond his relationship with the Divine to pursue his own path, and challenging the gods [as Tantalus discovered] is never wise.  Gradually, it became associated with the occult.

How do you work with symbolic numbers in writing poetry and fiction and non-fiction?

Using symbols can add surprise and depth:

  • Instead of a Council of 5 have a Council of 4, representing the four pillars of earth.
  • Instead of four traps, have 6.
  • For a protagonist who never achieves his goal (how sad), have the number 5 constantly pop up:  a meeting at 5 o’clock, 5 friends who give him advice he never takes, the missed train on Platform 5, the fifth missed message from his boss, the 5th time he forgot his anniversary on May 5.
  • Repeat an image three times.  Repeat using synonyms or other variations of a concept six or nine or twelve times.
  • We all see lists of seven or ten.  Be different:  create lists of eight.
  • Categorize into four major areas, each with three subsets (a hidden seven).

When it’s time to flesh out the details of your outlined work, think through the numbers and see if they can magically assist you.

~~M A Lee

Click this link for the Grammar Monsters Opening Lessons Chart.

Grammar Monster: Introduction

We have to do hard things in life.

Especially in places like school or at completely new jobs, we find ourselves introduced to a lot of hard things.  So many new things are thrown at us that we want to throw some of them back.

We find it extremely difficult to see the reason we have to plow through all of the ticky little details involved with that hard thing.

And we look and pray and hope and wish for the end of it.

Grammar is one of those hard things that we encounter in school.

It is necessary.

One mark by which we all are judged, whether we are speaking or writing, is our grammar.  Make one mistake, and people automatically assume that we’re ignorant.  Or that we didn’t learn it.  Worst of all, they think we can’t learn it.

Those people judge our level of intelligence as well as the credibility of what we are saying.  It’s not right, but it happens.

Quite frankly, credibility–the believability that others accord to our statements, our opinions, our standing in the community, our businesses, and so much more–is all we stand on.

Each small nick in credibility costs us.  Those small increments build over time until the statue of “us” falls.

What is the point of grammar?

What we call “grammar” is actually divided into three disparate realms:  grammar (the way words work together to form complete thoughts), usage (the way words are used), and mechanics (the punctuation coding that helps us read groups of sentences).

We call it GUM:  grammar, usage, mechanics.

Use the wrong “their/they’re/there”, and people think you weren’t educated.  Slip the wrong verb form in the wrong place (“have tooken”), and people cringe.  Plop an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong, and opinions go downhill.

We say “grammar”, but we actually are talking about communication.

Whether spoken or written, we are communicating.

You may have heard of the “7 38 55 Rule of Communication”  or that verbal communication (speaking or writing) is only 10% or 20% of all our communication.  That’s not quite right: This Psychology Today article clears it up.

What is right–and non-quantifiable–is that we judge the speakers and writers (whether casual or informative) based on how they use the language.  GUM guides that judgment.  No errors, and we continue blithely along with that person.  Lots of errors, and those little nicks in their credibility start being applied.

What would happen to your belief in my ability to understand grammar if I had an error in this writing?  Down, down, down it would go, and nothing I wrote afterwards would have any effect.

It doesn’t matter if I tell you that no one is absolutely 100% perfect.  That mistake sits there, glaring at you, glaring at me, glaring at everyone.

The nick happened.  We can’t move on from there.

You say, “The computer will find the errors for me.”

Maybe.  It can’t now.  It may never be able to do so.  Grammar rules, especially in English, dependent on what are called fluid factors.  To encode all those fluid factors would create a massive computer program.

Take this simple spelling rule:  I before E except after C or as sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh, and weird is just weird.  This one rule has four fluid factors.

Think of all the unusual forms of sentences where the subject does not occur first.  The first sentence of this very paragraph has an understood subject.  We also have modifiers that come first.  Questions throw the subject out of position.  Sentences are sometimes inverted.  That’s four more fluid factors.

Now add in all the words of the English language, which is twice as large as any other language in the world.

Do you see the problem?

Students in my dual enrollment college composition courses tried to defeat the monster that grammar can be by using an online grammar checker for essays.   This is a much more sophisticated program than the simple grammar/spelling checker in word processing programs.

Word processing software doesn’t find every error.  However, surely something online can find every error?  Sorry.  Not possible.  Not yet.

The students used the online grammar checker because they didn’t want to learn how to avoid the Type I errors.  More than three Type I errors would fail an essay (not my rule but the rule of the college).  Invariably, more than a handful of Type I errors would be missed by that online grammar checker, and they would fail the essay.

Maybe your grandchildren won’t have to learn grammar–but I doubt it.  English has too many variables.


Misktakes do happen, don’t they? 😉 (That was deliberate, BTW.)

I do understand a lot about grammar, much more than the average English teacher, but I will add that I don’t understand everything.

What I do know and how I know it, these things I will share with you.

So, here are the Grammar Monster blogs, provided for anyone wanting more information about GUM and specifically as Home School Helps.

Starting on August 8 will be the first Grammar Monster blog.  Enjoy.

(Grammar can be enjoyable.  Truly.)

Old Geeky Greeks and Creative Writing

Old Geeky Greeks:  Write Stories Using Ancient Techniques

Here’s A List For Aspiring Writers
public domain image, original located at the National Gallery of Art in D.C.
John Singer Sargent’s sketch for his 1902 sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa’s head

Blood tragedies.


I, Robot.

Harry Potter.



The 13th Warrior.

The scariest woman in all literature.

The Hobbit.

Dudley Dooright.

5 Stages of the Hero . . . and the Monster.

Jurassic Park, in all its iterations.

What Do The Items In This Oddly-Matched List Have In Common?

These stories all have origins with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Sitting around fires after a day of hunting and gathering, the first writers developed techniques to influence their audiences.

Those techniques have thousands of years of use and still hold true for capturing audiences.

The ancient Greeks (and Romans) of classical antiquity viewed the stories and dramas that were enduring.  And just like writers today, they searched and defined and classified the best techniques to create writings that pleased their audiences.

These old geeky Greeks laid the foundations.  Many of their techniques are still in use. Ideas original to them are re-packaged as glittery infographics and Wham-Pow webinars and three-point seminars with exclusive insights to Buy Now!

Clear And Quick Information

Old Geeky Greeks: Write Stories with Ancient Techniques presents such ideas as the Blood Tragedy and dulce et utile in a clear, organized method for writers who want to write rather than invest hours getting three snippets of information.

Chapters in OGG cover understanding characters to the five stages that established the modern protagonist from the ancient hero.  Aristotle’s requirements for plot precede a survey of the oldest plot formula, the Blood (or Revenge) Tragedy.  Concepts such as in medias res and dulce et utile can help writers solve sticky problems and develop new ideas.

Old Geeky Greeks (and Romans) looked at successful plays and other story-telling methods to determine what influenced the audience.

  • Which characters were still talked about weeks and months after a performance?
  • Which play structures failed—and which were consistently winners?
  • And which ideas helped writers develop their celebrated writings?
Writers Today Are Still Searching For The Answers To These Questions.

The bright minds of Classical Antiquity first explored these questions.  Their answers are applicable even in the age of the internet, open-source software, special effects, and infographics.

Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Horace, and many other ancient geeks have their ideas matched to Harry Potter, AvatarLast of the Mohicans, and Shakespeare.

Whether we’re writing novels or plays, blogs or non-fiction, poems and songs, Old Geeky Greeks (written by M.A. Lee and Emily R. Dunn) is a seminar in 28,000 words, just published on Amazon Kindle.

Buy it here!

John Singer Sargent’s sketch for his 1902 sculpture of Perseus with Medusa’s head, provides the cover art for OGG.