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Five Simple Rules for Number Writing

numbers for writersBy Allison VanNest, Grammarly.com

For most writers, it’s rare to come across a topic that doesn’t require some form of numerical writing.

We write about numbers in everything from budget analysis documents to children’s books (“one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish”). But despite the frequency with which we use numbers, the rules associated with writing them out can be a bit confusing – especially since there are quite a few style guides that offer somewhat conflicting suggestions.

Luckily, in the English language there are a few universally acceptable suggestions – or “rules” – when it comes to number writing:

Rule #1: Spell out all of your small numbers.

This means that anything under the number 10 (but not including it) should be spelled out. The easiest way to remember to do this is to know that all of the single digits need to be made longer by being written out, but once those double digits surface, you need to shorten them up by writing them numerically.

Rule #2: Rule #1 doesn’t always apply when the numbers are right next to each other.

Take this sentence for example: “There are six 8-foot trees over there.” Instead of writing out “eight,” we can use its numerical form, “8.” If we hadn’t done this, the entire sentence would have been too confusing for the reader to process at first glance. Keep this rule in mind when listing different numbers; for example, “She has cousins that are 2, 4, 6, 13, and 14-years-old.”

Rule #3: Avoid putting numbers at the beginning of a sentence.

Many style guides would suggest that you write out any number at the beginning of a sentence. The reason for this is that if a number is really long, it can be difficult for the reader to absorb and easily understand. For example, “One million three hundred thousand and one people were impacted by the storm,” is far more difficult to understand than if you simply wrote, “The storm impacted 1,300,001 people.” Sometimes you just have to rewrite the sentence and find a way to get the number away from the beginning.

Rule #4: Distinguish the time of day properly.

When writing out the time that something happened, you’ll want to distinguish whether something is happening in the daytime or the nighttime. Simply writing, “the parade starts at 8” is not clear for the reader. The more acceptable way to clarify what time is to write, “the parade starts at 8:00 p.m.”

Rule #5: When in doubt, write it out.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the rules for number writing. When you are in doubt, and you don’t know whether you should write out a number numerically or using letters, you should default to the latter.

However, keep in mind that these suggestions are just that – suggestions. If a writing project has a specific request for a writing style like the Associated Press or the Chicago Manual of Style, it is best to resort to that specific style guide’s rules and instructions for writing out numbers.

Your turn:  What surprised you here? How do you remember these rules? Have any others you’d like to share? Tell us in comments.

About the Author

A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and nearly 690,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Martin Pettitt

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  • I enjoy seeing articles such as this. We have to educate writers today on the proper use of the English language and how it is written…they don’t get it in high school or college. I went to high school in the late 1940’s and this was part of our regular English classes. Things have really changed. We were taught cursive writing, sentence diagramming, grammar and more. Today’s students learn how to text or use an iPad and good luck. We even had classes on typing on a typewriter (what’s a typewriter momma?). Remember learning “I before E unless…”?

    • I remember all those and now I use an iPad… go figure. But your point is well taken.

      On another note, Lee I love the huge variety in your work history… perfect for a writer!

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