Q: Sometimes I see numbers spelled out (nine) and at other times I see them in numeric form (9). Which is correct? When do I spell out numbers and when do I write them out? —Kevin T.
A: Most writers—including me—took on this artistic profession for three reasons: We’re creative, we love to read and, most important, we want to avoid numbers at all costs. Yet somehow, even in writing, numbers have found a way to sneak back into our lives.
There are several rules of thought on how to handle writing numbers, but the most common is pretty simple. Spell out numbers under 10 (zero through nine), and use the numeric symbols for numbers 10 and up. I bought eight candy bars from the vending machine. I average eating 29 candy bars per month.
There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, spell out all numbers that begin a sentence. Forty-seven-thousand contestants were turned down for “American Idol.”Eleven were selected. Of course, there’s an exception to the exception: Don’t spell out calendar years, even at the front end of a sentence. 1997 was the year I met my wife. And, if you don’t feel like writing those long, awkward-looking numbers, just recast the sentence. American Idol turned down 47,000 contestants. I met my wife in the magical year of 1997.
Also, there are other instances where the under-10/over-10 rule doesn’t apply. Always use figures for ages of people (“He’s 9 years old”), dates (February 14), monetary amounts ($8), percentages (14 percent) and ratios (2-to-1).
Again, this is a style issue and other sources may suggest different ways of handling numbers. So please, no hate mail. And let’s agree not to talk about numbers for the rest of the day—they make my head hurt.
Check out these Grammar Rules to help you write better:
Sneaked vs. Snuck
Who vs. Whom
Lay vs. Lie vs. Laid
Which vs. That
Since vs. Because
Ensure vs. Insure
Home in vs. Hone in
Leaped vs. Leapt
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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Except for a few basic rules, spelling out numbers vs. using figures (also called numerals) is largely a matter of writers' preference. Again, consistency is the key.
Policies and philosophies vary from medium to medium. America's two most influential style and usage guides have different approaches: The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers zero through nine and using numerals thereafter—until one million is reached. Here are four examples of how to write numbers above 999,999 in AP style: 1 million; 20 million; 20,040,086; 2.7 trillion.
The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers zero through one hundred and using figures thereafter—except for whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and beyond (e.g., two hundred; twenty-eight thousand; three hundred thousand; one million). In Chicago style, as opposed to AP style, we would write four hundred, eight thousand, and twenty million with no numerals—but like AP, Chicago style would require numerals for 401; 8,012; and 20,040,086.
This is a complex topic, with many exceptions, and there is no consistency we can rely on among blogs, books, newspapers, and magazines. This chapter will confine itself to rules that all media seem to agree on.
Rule 1. Spell out all numbers beginning a sentence.
Twenty-three hundred sixty-one victims were hospitalized.
Nineteen fifty-six was quite a year.
Note: The Associated Press Stylebook makes an exception for years.
Example:1956 was quite a year.
Rule 2a. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.
Forty-three people were injured in the train wreck.
Twenty-seven of them were hospitalized.
Rule 2b. Hyphenate all written-out fractions.
We recovered about two-thirds of the stolen cash.
One-half is slightly less than five-eighths.
However, do not hyphenate terms like a third or a half.
Rule 3a. With figures of four or more digits, use commas. Count three spaces to the left to place the first comma. Continue placing commas after every three digits. Important: do not include decimal points when doing the counting.
Note: Some choose not to use commas with four-digit numbers, but this practice is not recommended.
Rule 3b. It is not necessary to use a decimal point or a dollar sign when writing out sums of less than a dollar.
Not Advised:He had only $0.60.
He had only sixty cents.
He had only 60 cents.
Rule 3c. Do not add the word "dollars" to figures preceded by a dollar sign.
Incorrect: I have $1,250 dollars in my checking account.
Correct: I have $1,250 in my checking account.
Rule 4a. For clarity, use noon and midnight rather than 12:00 PM and 12:00 AM.
AM and PM are also written A.M. and P.M., a.m. and p.m., and am and pm. Some put a space between the time and AM or PM.
Others write times using no space before AM or PM.
For the top of the hour, some write 9:00 PM, whereas others drop the :00 and write 9 PM (or 9 p.m., 9pm, etc.).
Rule 4b. Using numerals for the time of day has become widely accepted.
The flight leaves at 6:22 a.m.
Please arrive by 12:30 sharp.
However, some writers prefer to spell out the time, particularly when using o'clock.
She takes the four thirty-five train.
The baby wakes up at five o'clock in the morning.
Rule 5. Mixed fractions are often expressed in figures unless they begin a sentence.
We expect a 5 1/2 percent wage increase.
Five and one-half percent was the expected wage increase.
Rule 6. The simplest way to express large numbers is usually best.
Example:twenty-three hundred (simpler than two thousand three hundred)
Large round numbers are often spelled out, but be consistent within a sentence.
Consistent:You can earn from one million to five million dollars.
Inconsistent:You can earn from one million dollars to 5 million dollars.
Inconsistent:You can earn from $1 million to five million dollars.
Rule 7. Write decimals using figures. As a courtesy to readers, many writers put a zero in front of the decimal point.
The plant grew 0.79 inches last year.
The plant grew only 0.07 inches this year.
Rule 8a. When writing out a number of three or more digits, the word and is not necessary. However, use the word and to express any decimal points that may accompany these numbers.
one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars
one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Simpler:eleven hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Rule 8b. When writing out numbers above 999, do not use commas.
Incorrect: one thousand, one hundred fifty-four dollars, and sixty-one cents
Correct: one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Rule 9. The following examples are typical when using figures to express dates.
the 30th of June, 1934
June 30, 1934 (no -th necessary)
Rule 10. When spelling out decades, do not capitalize them.
Example:During the eighties and nineties, the U.S. economy grew.
Rule 11. When expressing decades using figures, it is simpler to put an apostrophe before the incomplete numeral and no apostrophe between the number and the s.
Example:During the '80s and '90s, the U.S. economy grew.
Some writers place an apostrophe after the number:
Example:During the 80's and 90's, the U.S. economy grew.
Awkward:During the '80's and '90's, the U.S. economy grew.
Rule 12. You may also express decades in complete numerals. Again, it is cleaner to avoid an apostrophe between the year and the s.
Example:During the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. economy grew.