Little Rules, Big Improvement
In which the author rehearses helpful guidance for writing numbers on the page.
There are so many points of style to know, it’s hard to find a place to begin.
Some rules of style are especially easy to learn and apply. Even better, a few are especially noticeable and common. First on that list? Writing numbers.
When writing numbers, there are a few easy-to-remember rules about what is appropriate. Let’s zip through them:
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- A number is an idea or a concept. It refers to amount. Compare that to a numeral, which is the character on the page that represents the number. We think about numbers, but we write down numerals. In written work, we refer to numerals only when we are talking about the figure itself, not its value.
- Spell out one through nine. Use numerals for everything else – everything, all the way to infinity. Children age seven and under should stay with their families. Children age 10 and under should go with the teacher. Children who turn 13 this year are eligible for the scholarship.
- It’s okay to mix words and numerals. See the example immediately above.
- It’s also okay to mix words and numerals in a list:
But if you wish to use all numerals for visual consistency in a list, that’s fine, too.
- Avoid beginning a sentence with a numeral. Rewrite if possible. Otherwise spell out the number. Ninety attendees contacted us after the focus group, but only nine made a donation – a success rate of only 10 percent.
- Hyphenate compound numbers between 21 and 99, but no others:
- Twenty-nine (29)
- Twenty-two thousand, nine hundred twenty-one (22,921)
- Spell out fractions:
On this point, standards vary. Some editors hyphenate only when the fraction is an adjective or adverb before the noun it modifies; this follows the standard hyphenating rule for modifiers. Other editors hyphenate in every case on the grounds that the fraction is a compound noun. What's the best way to do it? Pick one way or the other and stick with it, that's the best way.
- When describing a range, use a hyphen or the word “to”:
- The program is intended for youth age 18-21.
- The program is intended for youth age 18 to 21.
- When writing prose, write out “percent” after a number. Reserve the percent sign (%) for charts. We were responsible for adding 17 percent to last month’s profit.
Best of all? You don’t have to know anything at all about numbers to write them down as if you do. Bonus!
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