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Style: Numbers



In your school days, you probably learned to, in general, spell out numbers less than one hundred in your writing. At some point you may have learned Associated Press style -- spell out whole numbers less than 10, use numerals for 10 and above. Other styles (the rules set forth by a particular publisher or publication) specify using words for numbers one through ten or one thru twenty.

Obviously you should use whatever style is ordained by circumstance or employment. Outside of that, the best you can do is pick one style and remain consistent. The CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE recommends digits for 100 or more and that's probably a good general rule for fiction. AP's rule is probably better for nonfiction.

That's not all you need to know about numbers, though. If you really want to get it right, check a style manual (CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S MANUAL FOR WRITERS AND EDITORS, THE OXFORD GUIDE TO STYLE, etc.) and stick with their guidelines.

Although you will find other guides and other styles - we're not trying to pick fights here! -- here are some general guidelines for non-technical, non-scientific usage:
  1. No matter what the style is otherwise, do not use numerals to start a sentence. Spell the number out.
  2. Round numbers over 999,999 should be spelled out: one million rather than 1,000,000, even 1.5 million rather than 1,500,000.
  3. Use digits for units of measurement and rates. Years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds are units of measurement.
  4. Use parallel construction with a series of numbers. As in:
    • I need copies of pages 346, 75, and 6.
    • (Not I need copies of pages 346, 75, and six.)
      Exception: when two numbers occur sequentially, spell out one and use digits for the other:
    • He bought seven 3-volume sets.
    • Remember, sometimes one number should be spelled out anyway:
    • I need eight 8-ounce tumblers.
  5. Dates should be in numerals: 15 April 2001 or April 15, 2001.
  6. In fiction, centuries usually are spelled out (twentieth century, eighteenth century). Decades can be spelled out (the sixties, the twenties,) but it is more and more common to use 1960s, 1920s. etc.
  7. Although you'll find decidedly different styles of expressing fractions, you might consider AP style rules here: Spell out amounts less than one and use hyphens (one-half, three-fourths, etc. Use digits for precise amounts above one, decimals whenever they can be easily converted.

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