When to Spell, or Not Spell, Numbers: The Naughty Grammarian Explains
Numbers and Numerals
When Miss Grammers was forced to study math in school, the numbers gave her a headache. Numeracy (the ability to apply numerical concepts) was not her forte.
She was much better with words than with numbers.
Miss Grammers decided to become a writer and not a mathematician.
A Jumble of Numbers
Alas, today, Miss Grammers must deal with both. Miss Grammers had hoped to quickly enumerate a number of rules concerning when to spell out numbers and when to use the actual numbers, that is, when to use “seven” and when to use “7”. Unfortunately, the rules have so many exceptions and are so often preceded with “It depends” that Miss Grammers might as well have turned to numerology (the pseudo-science of using numbers for purposes of divination) as to the commonly accepted guides for style.
Before we begin, Miss Grammers must point out that a “number” and a “numeral” is not the same thing. A number is an abstract mathematical concept, and a numeral is the symbolic representation of that concept. For instance, we represent the number seven with this numeral: 7. Or we could use the Roman numeral: VII.
To Spell or Not to Spell
The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers one through nine and using numerals from 10 on.
The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers one through ninety-nine, and using numerals for numbers from 100 on.
To complicate matters further, some guides say that any one-word number should be spelled out, so you would spell out seventy, but not 77.
Miss Grammers has always preferred using numerals for any number 10 and higher since it is the simplest option. You may choose otherwise, if you wish.
Here is the most important advice about the use of numbers: Be consistent. When dealing with numbers, there is often no one right way to do it. You can choose from two or more acceptable alternatives, but once you choose a style, be consistent.
"7" or "Seven"
Love’s True Desire
The best way to illustrate all the rules and exceptions may be an excerpt from Miss Grammer’s novel, Love’s True Desire. (It's a work in progress.)
Melanie was only 9 ½ years old when she first met Doug. He was 18 years old at the time, and a friend of her big brother, Brad. Doug and Brad had both just graduated high school.
Doug had stopped by to show Brad his new car, a shiny red Mustang, that he had received as a graduation gift.
“The Mustang first came out in the sixties,” he told Brad, “and it has been popular ever since.”
Melanie heard her mother call from the kitchen window, “Dinner will be ready in five minutes at six o’clock sharp. Don’t you two be going anywhere.”
Brad said, “I’ll come back at 7:30, and we’ll go to the party together.” He was talking to Doug. He appeared to not even see Melanie. “Right now I have to pick up my sister at the train station. She’s arriving on the six-twenty train from New York City. Elizabeth always comes home for the big Fourth of July party." Then he sped off hitting 50 miles an hour before he turned the corner.
That night Melanie calculated how many days it would be before she was 18. She had been born on January 9, 1994. Today was the 30th of June, 2003. She would have to wait 3,459 days. Sixty minutes to an hour and twenty-four hours to a day meant she would have to wait close to five million minutes.
“Three thousand four hundred fifty-nine days—that is not too long for me to wait,” Melanie wrote in her diary. She did not stop to think that perhaps Doug would not be waiting for her.
Spelling Out a Number
When is it correct to spell out a number?
If a number is at the beginning of a sentence, spell it out. Better yet, rewrite the sentence to avoid having the number begin the sentence. It is just awkward to have a sentence begin with a number.
When spelling out a number of three or more digits, the word “and” is not necessary.
Three thousand four hundred fifty-nine days—that is not too long for me to wait.
She would have to wait 3,459 days.
If two numbers appear in the same sentence, spell out both or use numerals for both.
Sixty minutes to an hour and twenty-four hours to a day meant she would have to wait close to five million minutes.
Melanie calculated that 60 minutes to an hour and 24 hours to a day meant that she would have to wait close to 5 million minutes.
... close to 5,000,000 minutes." (Million and billion should be spelled out.)
If a year begins the sentence, it is not spelled out. However, it is better to rewrite the sentence to avoid starting with the year.
2003 was wonderful year for Melanie.
Melanie always remembered 2003 as a wonderful year.
If two numbers appear next to each other, spell one of them.
There were twenty-two 18-year old boys at the party.
There were 22 eighteen-year old boys at the party.
There were 22 18-year old boys at the party.
Using a Numeral
What is the correct way to use numerals?
Use comma every three numbers starting from the decimal point.
She would have to wait 3,459 days.
Hyphenate all compound numbers from 21 to 99 that are spelled out.
… twenty-four hours to a day
It is appropriate to use a numeral for a unit of measurement, such as 2 inches, 5 hours, 50 mph, the score is 3 to 1, 3 cups of flour, 9 years old, etc. (However, spelling out the words would not be wrong, as long as you are consistent.)
When there is a list of items, everything in the list should be shown with a numeral.
There were 3 kinds of brownies, 7 kinds of pie, 12 kinds of cake, and 22 different kinds of cookies on the buffet table.
Using numerals for a fraction
What is the correct way to write a fraction?
You can use a number for mixed fractions. (Mixed fractions contain a whole number plus a fraction.)
You can also spell out the whole number and the fraction.
Whichever style you choose, be consistent.
Melanie was only 9 ½ years old when she first met Doug. He was 18 at the time.
Melanie was only nine and a half years old when she first met Doug. He was eighteen at the time.
When the fraction is approximate, it is spelled out.
Melanie thought that half of the boys at the party were her brother’s classmates. (Not "½ of the boys.")
Using Numerals for a Date
What is the correct way to write a date?
Dates are usually expressed like this:
She had been born on January 9, 1994.
This would also be correct.
Today was the 30th of June, 2003.
This is also correct, especially if you wish to emphasize the number
On the ninth of January…
Using Numerals to Indicate the Time
What is the correct way to write the time (hour and minute)?
Time is usually expressed as numbers.
I’ll come back at 7:30
However, the time can be spelled out, especially if the word “o’clock” is used or when the time is being used as a modifier.
Dinner will be ready in five minutes at six o’clock sharp.
She’s arriving on the six-twenty train from New York City.
Note: "on the 6:20 train" is also correct.
Using a Word or Numerals for a Decade
What is the correct way to write a decade?
When expressing decades, you can use either numerals or spell out the decade. If the decade is spelled out, it should not be capitalized.
The Mustang first came out in the sixties.
The Mustang first came out in the 60’s.
However, if the decade is named, it becomes a proper noun and it is capitalized.
The Mustang first came out in the Swinging Sixties.
If using numerals, it is your choice to place the apostrophe before or after the number, but never both. Remember to be consistent within your text.
‘60s or 60’s but NEVER '60’s
Using Numerals for a Monetary Unit.
What is the correct way to write monetary units?
Do not use a decimal point when writing a sum less than one dollar. (Don’t use $0.10).
If Melanie had 10 cents for every time she thought of Doug during those years, she’d have thousands of dollars by now.
If Melanie had ten cents for every time ….
Using Words or Numerals for Percents and Decimals
What is the correct way to write percentages and decimals?
Use numbers for percentages and for decimals. Spell out the word “percent”
Use a zero in front of the decimal if the decimal is not preceded by a whole number.
There is a 20 percent chance of rain on the day of the party.
We got 0.06 inches of rain.
We got 1.3 inches of rain.
Miss Grammers is curious.
Which do you find easier to understand?
Who is Miss Grammers?
Miss Grammers is “a lady of a certain age” (as the French so coyly put it) who prefers constancy. She likes to think that there is one right way to do a thing and a whole lot of wrong ways to do it. The style options for numbers seem to have only one constant–there is no ONE right way..
Miss Grammers does not like ambiguity. All of this talk about options has upset her. The options remind Miss Grammers of quantum physics with all the talk about a particle being in two places at once, and cats named Schrödinger being both dead and alive at the same time. Thoughts like these make Miss Grammers feel dizzy.
Miss Grammers likes a bit of naughtiness now and then, but this is entirely too naughty for Miss Grammers. Miss Grammers thinks that this is no way to run a universe, but apparently the universe is doing just fine without any help from Miss Grammers.
© 2014 Catherine Giordano