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Since I don't know how to make the title less ambiguous, I will explain myself with examples.

Example 1: imagine that in a dialogue between two mathematicians, one reads aloud the following sentence from a paper:

"The variable x is greater than the variable y."

How would you write his dialog line? That is, complete the following:

"Hey, look at this." He said. "According to this paper, the variable ..."

Example 2: a character spells a word or abbreviation, such as 'TM1'.

I think all the following look awkward inside a dialogue line:

  • "I liked the TM1 better."
  • "I liked the T M one better."
  • "I liked the tee em one better."
6

The answer is easy when the pronunciation of a single letter or acronym is known to your readers.

For example, we all had maths in school, we know what what a "variable x" means and how to pronounce it. In a case like this you can use the conventions familiar to all of us and write the variable name as it is written in all the school books of the western world as simply "x".

The answer is also easy when an acronym is unpronouncable as a word.

English words need a vowel, and they do not contain digits, so it is clear that "TM" must be pronounced "tee em" and "TM1" is read "tee em one".

But what if the meaning is not readily apparent or the acronym is pronouncable as a word? Does "i" signify a Roman numeral 1 or the letter i? Is "m" the letter or an abbreviation for meters? Is "cobev" a Swedish word or the abbreviation of a Colorado based beverage company?

To clear this confusion there are conventions.

For example, Roman numerals are not used in English except in places where the context makes their meaning clear as in page numbers ("p. vii"). Outside scientific texts, units are never abbreviated ("twelve metres"). Acronyms are written in capital letters ("COBEV"), foreign words in italics ("cobev").

But how do you write single letters or strings of characters that are not abbreviations, acronyms, mathematical symbols or units of measure?

To answer this question we need to consider when they would appear in a written text at all.

In a story, a character might see, hear, speak or write a letter. In that case it will be in quotes:

John's t-shirt read "Straight Edge" and he had drawn a big black "X" on the back of his hand.

Only rarely will single letters appear without markup, but then the context will make their "letterhood" clear:

Verena pressed a random key: h.

As @SF pointed out in his comment below, a series of letters is often connected by dashes, for example when a character spells a word:

"The code is 'cohac', C-O-H-A-C."

The last represents something like "see ou eytch ey see".

But:

With great pride Lucy showed her mother what she had written: "br$4Agm"

  • Excellent point. Context is very important. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 1 '15 at 13:27
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    Let me add that alliterating a string of letters is often denoted with dashes. "The code is 'cohac', C-O-H-A-C." – SF. Mar 1 '15 at 18:55
  • Small nitpick: not all English words need a vowel (see 'rhyme' and others). – HarryCBurn Mar 1 '15 at 22:38
  • @Iplodman Then what do you call the "e" at rhe end? But since English spelling bears little relation to pronunciation, rather note that the "y" represents a diphthong or "gliding vowel". So, no matter how you look at it, there is a vowel in "rhyme". What makes you think there is none? – user5645 Mar 2 '15 at 5:49
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    In English, "y" can either represent a vowel or a consonant. In "sky" it represents a vowel, since it is not pronounced /skj/ (as in "year"), but /skaɪ/. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y But if you want, yes there are English "words" without vowels, such as "brrr" (shivering from cold) or "nth" ("to the nth degree"), but these are rare and special cases and certainly not normal words. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_words_without_vowels – user5645 Mar 2 '15 at 8:00
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Honestly, I have no problem with writing single letters or numbers in dialogue, particularly if they are acronyms. All the following look fine to me:

  • "The variable x is greater than the variable y."
  • "I liked the TM1 better."
  • "I drive a Mazda 2."
  • "But there is no MI-6!"
  • "Captain, the Klingons are at 132 mark 47."
  • "Captain's log, Stardate 8130.3."

I have seen "Stardate eight one three zero point three," but that looks silly to me.

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    A agree. In my opinion, "Stardate eight one three zero point three" is also much harder to read than "Stardate 8130.3". Long numbers written in digits are much more accessible than spelled out. Although in this case it doesn't matter much, because for everyone except the hardcore trekkie who knows how to convert between stardate and the gregorian calendar, the stardate is flavor anyway. – Philipp Mar 1 '15 at 12:52
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    @Philipp For the record, TOS stardates were nonsense. It wasn't until TNG that they tried to write them with any kind of meaning. (They also used 45-minute hours, because that's roughly how long an episode ran after ads.) </trekkie> – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 1 '15 at 13:25

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