When to Spell Out Numbers in Writing: Guide and Examples
The Rules for Writing Numbers in English
You may have noticed a theme when it comes to the English language: most rules are not standardized. This (somewhat frustrating) fact is especially true when it comes to spelling out numbers. Should you write them out in words or leave them as numerals? To write numbers properly, you will also need to identify potential differences between major style guides (such as MLA , APA , and Chicago , to name a few) because these guides often outline different rules for using numbers in writing.
To make it easier, let's use an example. Say you're working on a paper evaluating the importance of the local public library in your community. The document will make use of small numbers, large numbers, decades, and statistics. Each type of number may follow a different rule.
Thankfully, when using numbers in writing, you can count on a few conventions that apply to most situations; just be sure to consult your specific style guide if one has been assigned. If you don't have time to review each number yourself, a professional editor or proofreader can ensure that your numbers are written correctly.
Writing Small and Large Numbers
A simple rule for using numbers in writing is that small numbers ranging from one to ten (or one to nine, depending on the style guide) should generally be spelled out. Larger numbers (i.e., above ten) are written as numerals.
For example, instead of writing "It cost ten-thousand four-hundred and sixteen dollars to renovate the local library," you would write, "It cost $10,416 to renovate the local library."
The reason for this is relatively intuitive. Writing out large numbers not only wastes space but could also be a major distraction to your readers.
Beginning a Sentence with a Number
Here is a rule that you can truly rely on: always spell out numbers when they begin a sentence, no matter how large or small they may be.
Incorrect: 15 new fiction novels were on display.
Correct: Fifteen new fiction novels were on display.
If the number is large and you want to avoid writing it all out, rearrange the sentence so that the number no longer comes first.
Revised: There were 15 new fiction novels on display.
Whole Numbers vs. Decimals
Another important factor to consider is whether you are working with a whole number or a decimal. Decimals are always written as numerals for clarity and accuracy.
To revisit our library example, perhaps circulation statistics improved in 2015. If a number falls in the range of one to ten and is not a whole number, it should be written as a numeral.
Incorrect: The circulation of library materials increased by four point five percent in 2015.
Correct: The circulation of library materials increased by 4.5% in 2015.
Paired Numbers (Two Numbers in a Row)
When two numbers come next to each other in a sentence, be sure to spell out one of these numbers. The main purpose of this rule is to avoid confusing the reader.
Incorrect: There were 12 4-year-old children waiting for the librarian to begin story time.
Correct: There were 12 four-year-old children waiting for the librarian to begin story time.
Correct: There were twelve 4-year-old children waiting for the librarian to begin story time.
Decades and Centuries
Decades or centuries are usually spelled out, especially if the writing is formal.
Incorrect: The library was built in the '50s.
Correct: The library was built in the fifties.
If you are referring to a specific year (e.g., 1955), use the numeral.
Consistency Is Key When Using Numbers in Your Writing
Always strive for consistency, even if it overrides a previous rule. For example, if your document uses numbers frequently, it is more appropriate for all numbers to remain as numerals to ensure that usage is uniform throughout. Similarly, if a single sentence combines small and large numbers, make sure that all the numbers are either spelled out or written as numerals.
Incorrect: The library acquired five new mystery novels, 12 new desktop computers, and 17 new periodicals.
Correct: The library acquired 5 new mystery novels, 12 new desktop computers, and 17 new periodicals.
Style Guides May Have Slightly Different Rules for Writing Numbers in Words
Let's complicate things a bit, shall we?
If your work must follow the rules of a specific style guide, understand that various guides all have rules for spelling out numbers that may differ slightly from the rules listed above. For example, MLA style indicates that writers may spell out numbers if they are not used too frequently in the document and can be represented with one or two words (e.g., twenty-four, one hundred, three thousand ). APA style advises that common fractions (e.g., two-thirds ) be expressed as words. A number of specific rules for spelling out numbers are outlined in Section 9.1 of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Your ultimate authority will always be a style guide, but in the absence of one, following the rules outlined above will help you stay consistent in your use of numbers in writing.
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The Semicolon and Colon
When Should I Spell Out Numbers?
It is generally best to write out numbers from zero to one hundred in nontechnical writing. In scientific and technical writing, the prevailing style is to write out numbers under ten. While there are exceptions to these rules, your predominant concern should be expressing numbers consistently.
Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing shines? Grammarly can check your spelling and save you from grammar and punctuation mistakes. It even proofreads your text, so your work is extra polished wherever you write.
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Numbers can disrupt readability in a paragraph, so for most writing purposes, it is best to flex those fingers and type out numbers less than 101 as fully spelled words.
Sophie said there are ninety-nine reasons why she adores Justin Bieber, not nine.
According to census records, there were 53,364 people over the age of one hundred in the US in 2010.
When writing out numbers between forty and forty-nine, be sure to remember that forty has no u in it ( this is a common spelling error ).
The rules demonstrated in the examples above are simply rules of thumb and there are exceptions to them. For example, round numbers such as hundreds, thousands, or hundred thousands should be written out in full. Numbers that are not conveniently round will read better written as numerals.
It was said that there were five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men.
This year’s parade brought in 123,675 attendees.
When a number begins a sentence, that number should always be spelled out. That said, writers often choose to restructure their sentences when the numbers become cumbersome for the reader.
5 finalists will qualify for the next round of the competition.
Five finalists will qualify for the next round of the competition.
Seventeen seventy-six was the year America became a nation.
In 1776, America became a nation.
Spelling out numbers in technical, scientific, and complex writing
Scientific and technical journals, and even news reports, often adhere to the rule that only numbers less than ten should be written out in full, except when fractions or decimals are involved. This can be a sensible approach to ensuring the readability of texts that refer to numbers and figures frequently.
The color blue was preferred by five out of eleven experiment participants.
Did you know the average snail moves at 0.029 miles per hour?
Fractional quantities of larger numbers, such as those in the millions and billions, are most easily read when abbreviated as decimals in combination with the word “million” or “billion” where possible. Whole millions and billions (and in American usage, trillions) can be expressed as a whole number plus the word “million,” “billion,” etc.
The Milky Way is approximately 13.6 billion years old.
Canada has a population of nearly 36 million.
When using abbreviations for units of measurement in your writing, always express numbers as numerals. Similarly, when writing about money, use numerals in connection with the dollar sign or other currency symbols. Infrequent references to money read best when written out as spelled-out numbers plus the word for the currency involved.
One inch is equal to 2.54 cm.
The weight of an average hippopotamus is 1,500 kg.
Patients expressed a desire to take the medication occasionally, but were hesitant to pay the fifty-dollar fee.
The actual cost of the medication to patients is $51.75.
Deciding whether to write out numbers in full can be tricky, but the key is to use the correct style for your audience and to use it consistently.
The Writing Cooperative
Oct 24, 2020
7 Tips for Using Numbers in Headlines
Engage more readers when you get specific with digits.
Numbers in headlines engage more readers. By “engage,” I mean that a user will move beyond the headline and read the article, share the post, click a link, or make a comment. By engage “more readers,” I mean anywhere from 15% more (in a Moz study) to 73% more (in a Conductor study) than if you don’t use numbers.
Readers like numbers in headlines, such as the one I used for this article. A number gives a clear expectation of what you’ll get: in this case, it’s 7 tips. That’s practical information. And even if two or three (or five or six) of those tips don’t pan out, you’ll still walk away with at least one or two ideas you can use.
Writers like numbers, too. Use a number for an article or post headline and you have a ready-made outline to follow. But a word of caution: it can be tempting to use a number as a headline-writing crutch. A headline is only as good as the benefit it offers. Make sure your headline includes a gain or advantage for your reader. The number helps enhance that benefit.
In this case, my headline’s benefit? Tips for writing headlines using numbers, a well-established headline writing technique. I’m a writer. I want those tips. The number 7 tells you that I’m going to give you some practical options to use to write numbered headlines. Let’s take a look at them.
Tip 1: Start your headline with the number
When a number leads off your headline, then the reader understands how you’ll arrange the content. There’s an implied promise that what follows will be orderly and structured. “Our brains are attracted to numbers because they automatically organize information into a logical order,” says commercial designer and illustrator Mike Hamers . “(Numbers) are like candy for your organizational mind.”
Tip 2: Use digits
Use a digit, not the spelled-out word, in your headlines. Numbers are easy to read. They take fewer characters, making them simpler for your reader to process. And readers like simplicity . One exception: the AP Stylebook tells you to spell out the word for the number. When you’re submitting an article in AP style, do so. For everything else, use digits.
Tip 3: Deliver the correct number of items
If you promised 7 tips, then give 7 — not 6. Readers don’t like to be misled. But what if you don’t have that exact number of items to offer in your content to match the number you want to use in your headline? (See Tips #5 and #6, below.) In that case, your reader will be forgiving if you overdeliver. Let’s say you have eight tips but you want to use 7 in the headline because the number 7 catches readers’ attention. Solution: list your eighth point as a “Bonus Tip.”
Tip 4: Use numbers for emphasis
Numbers are adjectives. They suggest relative nature or size. For instance, small numbers can imply simplicity (“Tone your calves in just 3 minutes a day”) or insignificance (“Give a child clean water for less than a dollar a week.”) Likewise, large numbers suggest substantiality (“How I made $54,628 with one email”) or depth (“Your gift multiples 28 times.”) When you choose a number to use in a headline, make it one that emphasizes your article’s slant.
Tip 5: Choose multiples of 5 for listicles
Ten is the most popular and most-read number for listicles, according to a study by content analysis tool BuzzSumo . Other go-to headline numbers are 5, 15, 7, 20. The moral of the story? Multiples of 5 or 10 are the most engaging to use with a listicle post.
Tip 6: Be odd
Why do marketing gurus recommend odd numbers in headlines for pieces other than listicles? They’re more believable to the brain than even numbers. Human beings subconsciously doubt nice, tidy answers when they know life is messy and unpredictable. Along with believability, odd numbers are easier for users to recall and to keep track of as they read.
Tip 7: Use small numbers for a process
If you’re writing a step-by-step guide, use a number that is less than ten. Too many steps beyond nine are difficult for readers to process and they’ll think, “Whoa, skip that article — it’s too complicated.” But if you’re creating a gift guide list, a compilation of best yoga poses for pregnant women, or other catalog or collection, then any number works. Readers can skim a list easily.
A self-check for using numbers in headlines
You’ll engage more readers you include numbers in headlines than if you don’t use them. But be careful. Don’t use numbers as a lazy replacement or a quick headline writing fix.
To that point, how can you know whether or not your numbers add genuine value to your headline? Here’s a useful self-check. Remove the number from the headline. Does the headline still offer a benefit to your reader?
If you can honestly answer yes, then you’re on the right track. Your number can only increase your headline’s promised benefit. Added value in the headline means more readers will move beyond it. They’ll read your article, share the post, click a link, or make a comment. They’ll engage. That’s what you want for your reader … and for you, too.
Kathy Widenhouse offers tips and tutorials for writers at www.nonprofitcopywriter.com .
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Kathy Widenhouse is a freelance content writer and online publisher who specializes in writing for nonprofits and ministries. www.nonprofitcopywriter.com
Text to speech
Numbers in Journalism
Numbers crop up all the time in journalism so it is important to know how to use them.
It is also important to remember that numbers are just words, and as such carry meaning. Just as a journalist you take care with the words you use, you should also take are with the numbers too.
Numbers one to nine are written as words, and 10 and more are written as digits.
When writing numbers greater than 999 split the digits into groups of three separated by a comma (not a space) such as 1,999, or 25,000, or 128,282,597. The exception is street numbers and years that do not take the comma separator.
Some news organisations do not use the comma separator on four digit numbers but this could lead to some confusion, especially with years. The Ultimate Guide's advice is to be consistent and use the comma separator in all cases greater than 999.
In text media write the number to as many significant digits as possible while preserving some readability, using any rounding sparingly and with caution.
In broadcast write out a number as you would say it. So 10.62 becomes "ten point six two", or 6,000,000 becomes "six-million", or 500,000 becomes "five hundred thousand" or even "half a million".
If a number is used at the start of a sentence then spell it out in words.
Most numbers in journalism need a unit or quanitfier to help give the number meaning.
Australia uses the International System of Units (SI) or metric system of measurement of kilograms, metres and seconds, although some non-SI units are also accepted.
Details on how those units are applied are governed by the National Measurement Institute .
The US and some other countries still used pounds, feet and gallons so it is important to know how to convert between the various units.
Writing large numbers
When it comes to writing a large number in journalism it is best to make it both as simple and as accurate as possible.
The table below may help you express your number using either the scientific notation or prefix notation accepted in Australia, and the accepted English word version of some large numbers.
It used to be the case that a billion was a million-million but then the US came along and downgraded a billion to just a thousand-million. That expression has gained acceptance now in Australia.
A trillion is now a million-million (or a thousand-billion), and is cropping up more in news stories, usually in government budget figures and computer memory.
Expressing numbers greater than a trillion can be tricky so it is best to stick to factors of a million, billion or trillion. Beyond that and you could opt for the scientific notation where one billion becomes 1x10 9 .
Care should be taken with some British figures, especially in older documents, where the older British definitions of a billion and trillion etc may still be used. Again, that is why the scientific notation is sometimes the best to avoid any ambiguity.
When doing calculations using a computer it is important to bear in mind accuracy.
Computers are not perfect calculating machines as they have limitations. This may not be a problem for most of the typical calculations you come across as a journalist, but it is best to be aware of those limitations.
For example, the Calculator program available on most Windows operating systems says it is only accurate to 32 digits. That means it only stores 32 digits of any number, regardless of where the decimal point occurs.
So any digits in a number beyond 32 will be lost, which includes any digits in any irrational numbers such as pi (π).
While this should not be a problem for most simple calculations, the Calculator program warns that any repeated calculations involving such numbers may lead to a loss in accuracy.
Other computer programs have their own limitations when dealing with the accuracy of number calculations and rounding errors. The thing to remember about such errors is that they add up.
It is also important to be aware of any errors (if any) involved in any measurement of a unit to be converted, especially when converting from small to large units, or vice versa.
However, the idea of having a range of units is to aid the expression of a number with a suitable unit. Expressing an astronomical distance is far better in leap years than say millimetres.
The conversion tools available on the Ultimate Guide allow you to include any (+/-) error in involved in the measurement of the original unit.
If you want to convert one unit to another, with no error in measurement involved, then go for it. For example, a road sign in Brisbane says Sydney is 986km, with no error given, so that converts to about 612.67 miles. (See rounding .)
But if you are converting a measurement you know is accurate only within a given (+/-) error then you can include that error margin in the conversion tool.
Say you have measured a distance using a metre rule that is marked only down to millimetre markings, then you can probably say at best your measurement is accurate to about +/-0.5mm.
Say you measured something 750mm +/-0.5mm and want to convert that to inches. You conversion gives 750mm as 29.527559055118 inches.
Your +/-0.5mm error margin becomes +/-0.019685039370079, or about 0.07 per cent to two decimal places.
Rounding , it would be fair to say the conversion was accurate to +/-0.02 inches so your final calculation would be to say 750mm +/-0.5mm is about 29.52 inches +/- 0.02 inches.
Rounding is often used to truncate a number to a certain number of significant digits or decimal places to make it easier to understand. Rounding can be useful to a journalist in making a number easier to read, or say in broadcast.
In the example above the number 29.527559055118 would be difficult to read in text and very hard to say in broadcast, so it is probably best expressed to just two decimal places at 29.53.
The basic rule on rounding is to look at the last significant digit you wish to keep in any number, then look at the next digit.
If that number is 5 or greater then you increase the last significant digit number by 1 (called rounding up), if the number is less than 5 then you leave the number as it is (rounding down).
So rounding 29.527559055118 to one significant decimal place it becomes 29.5, rounding to integer value only it becomes 30.
The same rule applies to large numbers and is used often in rounding large sums of money.
So given a budget of $250,842,234 then rounding to four significant digits this would become $250,800,000. Rounding to three significant digits this would become $251,000,000, or $251-million.
Be careful when rounding too much though as to say $926,768 is $1-million has suddenly added $73,232, or about 8 per cent, to the value. Why not say $929,000?
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Rules for Writing Numbers: Know When To Spell Them Out
- DESCRIPTION how to write numbers chart time, money, date and fractions
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Numbers don't just show up in math assignments — they also appear in everyday writing. Like many facets of the English language, there are rules for writing numbers. Certain numbers are spelled out with letters, and others are only written as numerals. You've probably come across more than your fair share of Top 10 lists; why is it not a Top Ten list? Learning how to write numbers in English will reveal the answer!
Rules for Numbers That Are Spelled Out
There are several situations in which number words should be spelled out. Of course, as is often the case in English, there are some exceptions to the rules outlined below. As with other grammar rules, rules for writing numbers change according to certain style guides (for example Chicago Manual of Style, AP, MLA , etc.). Discover several general rules for spelling out numbers.
Spell Numbers Under 10
When writing numbers under 10 in a sentence, they should be spelled out. This is true regardless of where they fall in a sentence.
- Martin has two younger sisters and five older brothers.
- Mary read four new books last week and seven newspaper articles.
Spell Numbers That Begin Sentences
Whenever there are numbers at the beginning of a sentence, those numbers should be written out.
- Sixty children came to the class trip last year, but this year there were 80 .
- Twelve credit hours is considered a full-time course load in college.
Hyphenate Spelled-Out Compound Numbers
When compound numbers are spelled out, such as when they are at the beginning of a sentence, they should always be hyphenated .
- Fifty-two miles were all she had left on her journey to Scotland.
- Forty-nine percent of teachers live in the city.
Hyphenate Spelled-Out Fractions
Fractions at the beginning of a sentence must be spelled out. Within a sentence, they can be expressed as numerals or words. When spelled out, they should be hyphenated.
- O ne-third of the group comes from China.
- She filled her gas tank with two-thirds of a gallon.
Guidelines for Numbers That Require Numerals
Part of learning how to write numbers in English requires learning the situations in which numbers should not be spelled out. Instead, they should be presented as numerals. Of course, these rules for using numerals all assume that the number isn't positioned at the very beginning of a sentence or question.
Use Numerals in Headings and Titles
When you include a number in a heading or a title, it's better to use a numeral rather than spelling out a word. That's why you'll see Top 10 in the title of listicle articles rather than Top Ten . This rule is true even when the number is the first word of the title.
- 15 Best Restaurants in San Francisco
- Top 6 Must-Remember Rules
Use Numerals for Numbers 10 and Above
When you include numbers 10 or higher in sentences, those should be expressed as numerals, unless they are at the very beginning of the sentence.
- I am planning to take a Caribbean cruise with 10 of my closest friends.
- She's bought about 12 pairs of shoes and 16 dresses in the last three months.
Use Numbers for Mixed Fractions
While fractions are ordinarily spelled out, there is an exception to this rule for mixed fractions. A mixed fraction combines a whole number and a fraction. These require numerals unless positioned at the beginning of a sentence.
- The recipe calls for 2½ cups of nuts.
- Our class art project calls for 1¼ cups of glitter.
Use Numbers for Days of the Month
Dates should be expressed using numbers. There are a few special rules for properly writing dates . When writing just the day of the month, you can use a cardinal (4) or ordinal (4th) number. Both are correct.
- Are you coming to the game on May 21st ?
- Her birthday is October 2 .
Use Numbers for the Full Date
When writing out the full date, you can use numbers for the month, da,y and year. Or, you can opt to spell out the month, with numbers for the day and year.
- Join our spooky Halloween party: 10/31/2018 .
- The play is on March 23, 2010 .
Please note that it is not correct to use ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd) with full dates. It would be incorrect to state " March 23rd, 2010 ." There are special rules for writing the date in military format .
Use Numbers for Percentages
When writing percentages, use numbers paired with the % sign.
- According to the latest survey, 52% of teachers live in the city.
- It's good to know that only 7% of Americans say they are unhappy.
The word percent should generally only be used when spelling out percentages in words, which you would only do at the start of a sentence.
Use Numbers for Decimals
Decimals should be written as numerals.
- There were 3.73 inches of rain last month.
- The mountain accumulated 8.98 inches of snow today.
It is best to avoid beginning a sentence with a decimal, as these types of numbers would be awkward to read if you had to spell them out. Often, you can reword what you want to say by putting the phrase "A total of" in front of the decimal as a way to keep from starting the sentence with a decimal.
Rules for Writing Numbers and Money
When it comes to money, numbers follow their own set of rules. Money amounts are usually written as numerals, but can be written out when the amount is vague or rounded up — "it cost two or three dollars."
The most important guidelines to keep in mind are:
- Currency symbols should be placed before the number, with no spaces. Example: She earned $2,750 for that project.
- Thousands should be separated by commas. Example: Marcy inherited $35,000 from her late uncle.
- Decimals should be separated by periods. Example: Seamus only spent $149.99 on that new smart TV.
- When you reach large numbers in the millions and billions, write out the full word (instead of all those zeros). Example: That new company earned $10 million in 2018.
- Do not write out the currency if you've already indicated an amount with a currency symbol. Example: I have $895 left in my checking account. (It would be redundant to say "$895 dollars")
Special Cases: Multiple Rules and Exceptions
There are some special instances where numbers may be written in multiple ways.
Avoid Mixing Number Words and Numerals in Lists
When numbers are in a list, it is generally ideal to keep all the numbers in the list consistent, even if some numbers are under 10 and some are over. However, if you are following a style guide that dictates to always spell out numbers under ten (such as AP), you should follow the rules even though that would result in an inconsistent list. Otherwise, consistency is best.
- inconsistent: She has four brothers aged seven , nine , 12 , and 15 .
- consistent : She has four brothers aged 7 , 9 , 12 , and 15 .
- inconsistent : Mary's traveled to three European countries and 14 deserted islands.
- consistent : Mary's traveled to 3 European countries and 14 deserted islands.
Vary Format With Two Side-by-Side Numbers
When you're writing a sentence that has two numbers side-by-side that aren't part of a related list, you'll need to adjust the text for clarity. In this case, it is best to write one number as a word and the other as a numeral.
- best: There are going to be 12 ten-year-old kids at my house this weekend.
- confusing: There are going to be 12 10-year-old kids at my house this weekend.
- less confusing, but not ideal : There are going to be 12, 10-year-old kids at my house this weekend.
Another option would be to rearrange the sentence to separate the numbers. You could say, "There will be 12 kids who are 10 years old at my house this weekend."
Writing Numbers on Checks
When you are writing a check that will be used to draw funds on a bank account or credit card cash advance, a special rule applies. In this case, you will need to indicate the amount numerically in the designated spot beside the dollar sign. Then, you'll need to spell it out. You can use words for the dollars and cents, or opt to express cents as a fraction out of 100, since it takes 100 cents to make a dollar. Be sure to include the word "and" between the dollars and the cents.
- When writing a check for $1,044.12, the full text should be written as one thousand forty-four dollars and 12/100.
- If you are writing a check for $182.40, you could write one hundred eighty-two dollars and fifty cents or one hundred eighty-two dollars and 50/100 .
- If you are writing a check for $79.00 even, the text could say seventy-nine dollars and 00/100 , seventy-nine dollars and no cents or s eventy-nine dollars only.
Rules for Referring to Decades
When referring to a certain decade, there are a few different options. You can use a word, the full date, or an abbreviated date.
- She lived in San Francisco in the eighties .
- During the 1980s , she lived in San Francisco.
- She lived in San Francisco in the '80s .
Guidelines for Writing Time (a.m. and p.m.)
When writing the time along with a.m. to designate morning or p.m. to designate evening, use the numeral to designate time. For the precise time, add the minutes after a colon (8:22 p.m.) When referring to an even hour, just list the hour rather than including that there are zero minutes (use 2 a.m. instead of 2:00 a.m.). Don't use words for the time when using a.m. or p.m. (unless the time is the first word in the sentence).
- correct : The accident happened at 8:22 p.m. last night.
- correct : They did not leave the party until 2 a.m.
- incorrect : They did not leave the party until two a.m.
How To Specify Time With "O'clock"
The phrase o'clock stands for "of clock," though that exact phrase is not standard English language usage. However, o'clock can be used when you're referring to an even increment of time. It should not be used with a.m. or p.m. Instead, you could specify "in the morning," "in the evening," or "at night" to clarify the meaning. When using o'clock , you can use numerals or words to designate time, opting to comply with the rules of any style guide you are following (if applicable).
- We have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to be on time for school.
- We have to get up at six o'clock to be on time for school.
- She gets home around eight in the evening.
Guidelines for Midnight and Noon
It is common to spell out noon and midnight instead of writing 12 p.m. and 12 a.m, though any of those options are correct. However, you should not combine both options.
- correct : We came home around midnight and slept until noon the next day.
- correct : I slept until 12 p.m. and then went to bed again at 12 a.m.
- incorrect : I need to be home by 12 a.m. midnight .
- incorrect : She is bringing lunch to me at 12 noon .
When in Doubt, Spell It Out
When in doubt about whether to spell out or write a number, it's usually best to spell it out. However, for larger numbers, you can always err on the side of the numeral form.
- The publishing company sold 10 million copies of my book last year.
- There are 1,500 sequins on that wedding dress!
Master Writing Numbers in English
Now that you are familiar with when to spell out numbers, take the time to discover some more rules for writing numbers. For example, explore the rules for using commas in numbers. Then, take an even deeper dive into numbers and explore those that can be expressed as a quotient by reviewing these rational number examples .
Daily Writing Tips
10 rules for writing numbers and numerals.
How do you express numbers in your writing? When do you use figures (digits) and when do you write out the number in words (letters)? That is, when do you write 9 and when do you write nine ?
1. Number versus numeral . First things first, what is the difference between a number and a numeral? A number is an abstract concept while a numeral is a symbol used to express that number. “Three,” “3” and “III” are all symbols used to express the same number (or the concept of “threeness”). One could say that the difference between a number and its numerals is like the difference between a person and her name.
2. Spell small numbers out . The small numbers, such as whole numbers smaller than ten, should be spelled out. That’s one rule you can count on. If you don’t spell numbers out it will look like you’re sending an instant message, and you want to be more formal than that in your writing.
3. No other standard rule : Experts don’t always agree on other rules. Some experts say that any one-word number should be written out. Two-word numbers should be expressed in figures. That is, they say you should write out twelve or twenty . But not 24 .
4. Using the comma . In English, the comma is used as a thousands separator (and the period as a decimal separator), to make large numbers easier to read. So write the size of Alaska as 571,951 square miles instead of 571951 square miles. In Continental Europe the opposite is true, periods are used to separate large numbers and the comma is used for decimals. Finally, the International Systems of Units (SI) recommends that a space should be used to separate groups of three digits, and both the comma and the period should be used only to denote decimals, like $13 200,50 (the comma part is a mess… I know).
5. Don’t start a sentence with a numeral . Make it “Fourscore and seven years ago,” not “4 score and 7 years ago.” That means you might have to rewrite some sentences: “Fans bought 400,000 copies the first day” instead of “400,000 copies were sold the first day.”
6. Centuries and decades should be spelled out . Use the Eighties or nineteenth century .
7. Percentages and recipes . With everyday writing and recipes you can use digits, like “4% of the children” or “Add 2 cups of brown rice.” In formal writing, however, you should spell the percentage out like “12 percent of the players” (or “twelve percent of the players,” depending on your preference as explained in point three).
8. If the number is rounded or estimated, spell it out . Rounded numbers over a million are written as a numeral plus a word. Use “About 400 million people speak Spanish natively,” instead of “About 400,000,000 people speak Spanish natively .” If you’re using the exact number, you’d write it out, of course.
9. Two numbers next to each other . It can be confusing if you write “7 13-year-olds”, so write one of them as a numeral, like “seven 13-year-olds”. Pick the number that has the fewest letters.
10. Ordinal numbers and consistency . Don’t say “He was my 1st true love,” but rather “He was my first true love.” Be consistent within the same sentence. If my teacher has 23 beginning students, she also has 18 advanced students, not eighteen advanced students.
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210 thoughts on “10 Rules for Writing Numbers and Numerals”
Most of these are correct. But, concerning 7, the percentage symbol should not be used in everyday writing. The percentage symbol is for business use, such as visual presentation. In other forms the word “percent” should be used. Also, your example in 10, concerning the students, is correct because the numbers are related. But, if the numbers aren’t related, then the “rule of ten” applies. Here’s an example: Sadly, there were only eight computers available to the 23 students.
As always, the tips provided here are valuable for many. That’s why I keep coming back “daily.”
Jay, good point on number seven. I think you should use digits for everyday writing and spell the percentage out in formal writing (like a newspaper article). I added this remark.
I believe there is a rule on using numbers with age as well, right? As in “always use figures to represent the age of a person.”
I was not aware of those of these rules, cool.
Is the comma used as a thousand separator everywhere English is spoken, or is that just an American rule?
Berto, that is the English standard, so it should apply both to UK and US.
Notice, however, that some places around the world use the dot as a separator and the comma to denote decimals.
To add confusion, the International System of Units recommends to use spaces to the sets of three digits, and use the comma or period just for the decimal.
I just added this info to the post, thanks for asking.
#2 is one that I always have a dilemma with. I know with AP style writing you’re suppose to write numbers you’ve stated in #2. In MLA style, you write one, five, twenty-one, one hundred, eighteen hundred, but write 5½, 101, 3,810. I actually like the AP style better with writing out one through nine and ten on, writing it as 10, 11, 12, etc.
I am curious though, your #2 you said “The small numbers, such as whole numbers smaller than ten, should be spelled out.” Why have you not wrote 10 as “10” since only numbers smaller than 10 should be spelled out?
Oops, that would make sense. But see rule #3!
Deron, point two says that all whole numbers smaller than ten should be spelled out. It does not say anything about number equal or greater than ten. In fact, if you then read point 3 you will see that there is no standard rule for those numbers, some authors like to write them in digits, others still prefer to spell them out.
Heh, now I feel bad for naming my blog 60 in 3. Oh well, thank you as always for the great tips.
Firstly: 1. Number versus numeral. First things first, what is the difference between a number and a numeral? A number is an abstract concept while a numeral is a symbol used to express that number.
Then: 5. Don’t start a sentence with a number. Make it “Fourscore and seven years ago,” not “4 score and 7 years ago.”
Shouldn’t that be: 5. Don’t start a sentence with a NUMERAL.
Last time I checked, “four” and “4” where both numbers…
van, number 5 is fixed, thanks for the heads up.
Then, “four” and “4” are both numerals used to express the concept of “fourness,” they are not numbers themselves, they are symbols.
It is quite confusing I know, and probably not useful for the average writer. The other rules do apply though.
I suppose it depends what grammar book you want to fall back on, but it would easy to argue that you’re flat-out wrong about when to spell out numbers.
Use numerals before anything that can be measured: 3 decades, 3 years, 3 GB but not 3 children.
Use numerals when using a single digit number and a number composed of two or more digits in the same sentence. “Bob ate 3 cows and 12 pigs,” not “Bob are three cows and 12 pigs.”
One more for your list: Spell out any number used in a quote: “…four score..” and not “…4 score..”
Michael, 3 years you say? Well, here is a quote from the NY Times:
“Dobbs’s correspondents said there had been 7,000 cases of leprosy in this country over the previous three years, far more than in the past.”
“the difference between a number and its numerals is like the difference between a person and its name”
..a person and his name or ..a person and her name but never ..a person and its name
Bill, fixed that. I was thinking about an object and its name 🙂 , like the words that define it.
What I think it boils down to is: try writing the numerals in words; chances are that’s the right way. If words are obviously more confusing than digits, use digits. For example: “the second chapter”; “she’ll be eleven years old in two days”; “it’s the third road down the right”. These are all correct. But “seventeen point twelve percent of the data applies to all of our six hundred and forty two units and the rest only concerns the items that are stored in area three seven two” is confusing, and the numbers here should be written in digits. It’s more flexible than the rules above, but it follows the same spirit.
The comma is an English rule, so it must apply in the US as well. (NOT the other way about)
#4: The UK is in Europe. We do not use a comma as you describe. Thanks anyway.
Also whilst we’re talking about international numbering, isn’t it about time that the USA moved on from imperial measurements to metric like the rest of the world?
Good point Emmanuel, common sense should help here as usual.
I didn’t know about all the rules. I visited this for the first time but I liked it. I will visit it regularly. Keep it up. Thanks
Hey Daniel, thanks for pointing that out. My mistake on misreading what was there. 🙂
With that said, since there is not standard rule, what is your own personal preference?
I’ve been reading quite a bit about typography lately, which has impressed on me another rule that you should add to your list:
In the flow of a typical sentence (i.e. for ‘inline’ numbers), you should use “lower case” numbers.
Yes, you can have lower case numbers!
@James And about time the UK used kg instead of stone to denote body weight
James, enjoy 2.5 dl of tea
You can write it out when it is two words or less. Twenty is acceptable. Twenty-four is acceptable. If it requires more than two words, you should use the numbers.
So you say to spell out twelve, but then you say “12 percent”? Shouldn’t it be “twelve percent”?
Nitro, we are not saying you should spell out twelve. The only standard rule, as stated in point one, is to spell out whole numbers smaller than ten.
Other than that it is up to the author and his preference for the specific situation.
Personally I like use digits above the number te because it makes the text more clear, like “15 percent.” For smaller numbers you can spell them out though, like “five percent” or “two percent.”
These standards are good for English, but why not broaden the standard to multiple languages?
Why not just remove spelling out of numerals completely and standardize on using Arabic numbers? Then the numbers would never have to be translated except to traditional less used numbering systems. Then people who read the articles in foreign languages like French, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Russian, and a plethora more could understand without mentally having to translating from the English naming convention into their own numerical naming convention.
gr commenent Pascal-its g 2 c read comments from ppl with g sense of humours. ur a *!
Out of interest how would write operators?
PS you need a subscribe to comments option
Everton, it is on the “to do” list 🙂 .
Thank you very much for providing this very valuable lesson in writing skills I’ve always wanted to acquire.
Good tips. I’m enjoying this website quite a bit. 🙂
One more point I’d add, though, is using numerals for lists. It helps one remember the number itself more easily than if you had spelt it out, and aids quick comparison. E.g.,
3 eggs 4 cartons of milk 1 roast duck 2 oranges
Don’t you think the title should have been Ten Rules for… instead of 10 Rules for … considering your own guidelines?
Mike, usually titles have different rules, as far as typography goes at least (we should have covered that perhaps).
Like titles usually have all the words starting with capital letters, you don’t write that way normally.
That said, even if you consider our guidelines the “10 Rules” is congruent with points two and three. They state that numbers smaller than ten should be spelled out, and after that it is preference of the author.
Thanks Daniel. As you mentioned that titles have different rules. I feel the title should start with a word. It looks more aesthetically pleasing. Not sure whether anyone agrees with me.
Mike, I agree with you 🙂 . Maybe starting the title with a word is more pleasant, I will research about it and even experiment with it in the future.
You shouldn’t write “percent” ever. It’s wrong like “etcetera” is wrong. Put the space between the words: “per cent”.
Very well written list. Now if we could teach all newscasters and advertisers how to SAY numbers I would be in heaven. Seems they all got stupid in the year two thousand AND one.
It is funny when people come and say: “hey, you should not say that, ever!” or “you are dead wrong here!”
Just make a quick search on the net before posting such strong statements.
Per cent is the preferred British form, and percent is the American usage. Open the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal and you will find “percent” everywhere.
Thanks for the comment though, it served the purpose of clarifying this point.
Good post! There were many points, which I havent known until I read this article. But seems some of these rules are not practicable special ‘dot’ and ‘comma’ rule. -Nish
I never really new there was a difference. Thanks for the post. Very informative!
What is correct: “It’s my 13th birthday” or “It’s my thirteenth birthday”?
I like to know how to write the number seven hundred two thousand, three
as i am the first visitor of this web site so i have no comment writs now .
what about: 24-7 (VS) twenty-four seven ??
How would you write 1.5 to 2 acre lots?
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Abdullah Al Masud C/O Md.Azizur Rahman Block # C , Road # 37 House # 33 Uposhohar , Sylhet Bangladesh
Which is correct?
We celebrated our ninth birthday party together. We celebrated our ninth birthday partys together.
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Two Minute Tips
5 tips for using numbers in your story
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As a business journalist, numbers are everywhere. From prices to sizes, they provide information that is vital for your stories. Here are some tips from a March, 2014 Reynolds workshop that will help you better utilize numbers in your reporting:
1. Numbers are in every story.
Even if your title isn’t “business journalist,” chances are you’ll need to cover numbers. From government spending to population statistics to business acquisitions, they add information that is vital in helping readers understand the story you’re telling.
2. Present numbers in context.
Numbers tell you the facts, but you need to place them in context for your audience. Don’t just take a number you’re given at face value – dig deeper into how similar numbers compare. Also, find out how the figures you’re using are actually calculated. Learn what numbers are most important for your beat so you can understand what fluctuations in them mean. For example:
The stock market shows that it is down 22 points.
Did it recently have a huge upswing, and it’s now returning to normal?
Has it already been declining , and this is yet another drop?
How does this drop compare with recent or historical drops?
3. Use numbers responsibly in your writing.
Once you realize the beauty of numbers, it’s easy to go overboard with them. Use them as a tool to back up your main points. Simple tips include:
Don’t use more than three figures per paragraphs.
Try not to include numbers in more than one or two paragraphs in a row involving numbers.
This makes it easier for your audience to understand the significance of what you are talking about without becoming overwhelmed with the statistics you’re presenting.
4. Use examples and comparisons from real life.
It helps to put numbers into perspective. Helping your audience to visualize figures relative to concepts they already understand can help them in understanding the significance.
- “That is as big as…”
- “That is twice as large as…”
5. Use infographics to visually represent the numbers.
Using infographics helps to make your figures more accessible and easily understandable for your audience. They can also make your story more compelling.
For more tips on integrating numbers into your story, check out this Slideshare.
- Writing tips
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