Friday, June 22, 2012

Numbers, Numbers, and More Numbers

by Vivian Zabel 

        Today is bright and a bit cool, so why does it cause me to think of numbers? Maybe looking at the temperature; maybe the fact I've been editing again and saw a problem; maybe my brain just glitched. Whatever the reason, I decided to share what I know and expect from writers who use numbers in their writings.

         When I taught English and composition and newspaper, yearbook, and literary magazine, I had to be aware of which hat I was wearing in which class. The rules for writing agreed in most instances, but a few were different, such as when to write numbers in figures and when to spell them out in words.

         Generally, in literary writing, numbers under 100 were spelled-out, and in journalistic writing, numbers under 10 were. Now, though, I’m seeing numbers presented in all kinds of ways. Therefore, I decided to see if “rules” had been changed. In the August, 2005 issue of The Writer magazine, I found a whole article on numerals titled “Number know-how.”

         ”But what difference does it make how numbers are presented?” I can hear someone asking.

          The answer is professionalism. We need our writings to appear as professional as possible if we want editors to consider our written words seriously.

         Arthur Plotnik states, in the issue of The Writer, “Most style conventions serve economy, emphasis and clarity (through consistency). That, in turn, serves readers,” when speaking of the syntax of writing numbers. He gives points in the article addressing when to use figures and when to spell-out numbers, to which I added my thoughts and notes about what I learned over the years and through teaching:

1. Focus on your genre. The main points are found in the style manual a publisher follows. Therefore we need to be familiar with the publisher we want our work to impress. (4RV Publishing has a style book entitled: How We Do It.)

2. Use common sense. Wow! Now that’s an unusual concept. Figures are easier to follow in statistics, measurements, and paragraphs filled with numbers. Spelled-out numbers give “texture to literary passages, including dialogue.” However, if spelled-out numbers become awkward, reverting to figures is a matter of common sense. For example, 160,00 is easier on the reader than one hundred sixty-thousand.

3. Leave the finest points to editors. Just be consistent in your usage.

4. Get a feel for the literary style. Generally, numbers that can be expressed in one or two words should be spelled out: five hundred, twenty-six. Many literary publishers put numbers over 100 in figures, but they also have many exceptions.

          If in a series of numbers, some need to be in figures, then all should be in figures: 16,000 reporters, 99 authors, and 16 editors.

          When spelled-out numbers are one after the other, the first word or the longest should be replaced with figures: ten 220-paged books or two hundred 15-paged copies.

         Fractions more or less follow the spelled-out rule unless doing so would be unwieldy. The author gave two examples in the article: thirty-three-hundredths complete; a 3 3/4-inch-thick manuscript.

          Exceptions to the literary style include percentages and time, such as 2 percent, 2.5 percent, 7:30 a.m. (exception to time: half past five in the evening, a quarter after one, six o’clock), July 28, 1943 (but July twenty-eighth in dialogue). However, often in narrative, two percent is preferable to 2%.

5. Know the 10-and-above journalistic rule. Usually 10 and above are in figures in journalistic items. For millions and above, though, figures and words are mixed: 10 million; $5 million.

          Numbers that begin a sentence (except a year date) are spelled out. However, usually, sentences should be reworded to avoid starting with a number in figures,
unless part of a name, example 4RV Publishing.

         Don’t use and or commas in spelled-out numbers: One hundred ninety-six couples renewed their vows last year.

6. Heed a few matters of form. The two-word numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine are always hyphenated.

          Plural figures and spelled-out numbers rarely have an apostrophe before the s.

          Editors will often boil when reading “from 1941-1945,” since the word “to” should be used with “from,” or the dates and a hyphen should be used alone: He lived from 1919 to 1989; he lived 1919-1989.

A final grammar note for writers

          If a writer does not first master the rules of grammar, he won’t get very far as a writer. A book that all grammar-deprived people should buy is How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar by William Safire, published by W.W. Norton & Co.

4RV Bookstore  


  1. Vivian, what a coincidence you should post this today. I critiqued a piece this morning with a lot of numbers, and thus was moved to look up the rules for writing them. There were more than I realized. Thanks for the thorough summary.

  2. See, I come in handy some times. *grin*