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Numbers: Words or Numerals?

The topic of when to write numbers out and when to use numerals concerns and confounds a lot of people.

America’s two most influential style and usage guides have different approaches: The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers zero through nine and using numerals thereafter—until one million is reached. Here are four examples of how to write numbers above 999,999 in AP style: 1 million; 20 million; 20,040,086; 2.7 trillion.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers zero through one hundred and using figures thereafter—except for whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and beyond (e.g., two hundred; twenty-eight thousand; three hundred thousand; one million). In Chicago style, as opposed to AP style, we would write four hundred, eight thousand, and twenty million with no numerals—but like AP, Chicago style would require numerals for 401; 8,012; and 20,040,086.

There are only a handful of rules for writing numbers that virtually everyone agrees on. Two major ones: Numbers beginning sentences must be written out (Eight thousand twelve people attended the concert). Years (8 B.C., 2015) are expressed in numerals. But spelling out numbers vs. using numerals mostly comes down to policies and preferences that vary from publisher to publisher.

The topic causes further confusion because exceptions to just about every rule or practice crop up constantly. For instance, She walked 3 miles; Add 4 teaspoons of salt; Timmy is 5 years old; and The car is 6 feet wide are all correct in AP style, despite contradicting AP’s own rule of spelling out numbers between zero and nine.

Chicago endorses the following sentence “for the sake of consistency”: A mixture of buildings—one of 103 stories, five of more than 50, and a dozen of only 3 or 4—has been suggested for the area. Chicago explains why it does not spell out 50, 3, and 4: “If according to rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers [103] in a given category, use them for all in that category.” But why, then, are one, five, and a dozen written out? Because “items in one category may be given as numerals and items in another spelled out.”

AP’s approach to numbers is far less nuanced than Chicago’s. This may be because the Associated Press Stylebook is targeted to newspapers and magazines, which toil in a world of deadlines. There simply isn’t time to get sidetracked by numerical niceties when your article is due in three hours.

Here is a sentence from a profile that appeared in a big-city newspaper: “He has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution.” Note the glorious inconsistency of “10th,” which would make Chicago Manual of Style disciples apoplectic.

But AP style stipulates “10th,” not “Tenth,” and that’s that. It may look odd, but is the sentence not clear and unambiguous? When it comes to the arcane, convoluted subject of writing numbers, there’s something refreshing about AP’s streamlined approach.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, at 4:29 pm

What Kind of Rule Is Usually?

A thought-provoking inquiry showed up recently in our inbox:

I can’t decide which verb is correct in sentences like the following. Would I write There are three kilograms of flour in the kitchen or There is three kilograms of flour in the kitchen? Two meters of fabric is here or Two meters of fabric are here?

A staff member submitted this response:

A quantity of weight or measure is singular when considered as a unit. Therefore, write There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here.

That solution did not sit well with everybody. Both “correct” sentences sounded too bizarre to recommend.

True, amounts and measurements often take singular verbs. We say, “Here is that five dollars I owe you,” not “Here are those five dollars I owe you.” A Dickensian excerpt we found online gets to the crux of the matter: “Seven bright pennies were exposed on the grubby palm, but seven pennies was not enough for a candy bar.”

We went to several websites, and noticed some hedging: “Words expressing periods of time, weights, measurements, and amounts of money usually take a singular verb,” said one site. Another said “there does not appear to be universal agreement about this topic.” In other words, this is a rule, but only “usually.” (We also saw a lot of “generally” and “sometimes.”)

The National Geographic Style Manual recommended ten gallons is enough, but also ten dishfuls were slowly doled out. The manual preferred ten gallons is because ten gallons is “considered as a mass”—but many would see the ten dishfuls as a unit also.

Other sites were similarly murky. One recommended six months is needed to complete the assignment but also endorsed six months have passed since the assignment. Why not has passed, as in [a period ofsix months has passed? Another approved both ten dollars is the entry fee and ten dollars were tucked in the mattress.

When a “rule” is this subjective, maybe it should be downgraded to “guideline.”

Back to the original problem—There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here may be technically correct, but they sound terrible. The sensible solution is to recast the sentences: Three kilograms of flour can be found in the kitchen. I have two meters of fabric here.

There’s everything to gain and nothing to lose by rewriting ghastly sentences, even if they happen to be grammatical.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, at 2:38 pm

Revised and Expanded Blue Book Coming Next Month

The eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is set for a February debut. It has been six years since the tenth edition was published. So when the publisher, Jossey-Bass, requested another go-round, the team at was elated.

We trust that readers will find the new, extensively revised and expanded version in keeping with the author and founder Jane Straus’s vision of a direct, concise, unfussy grammar book.

The Blue Book, which started life as a booklet for California state employees, has now sold around 200,000 copies. Over the years, we’ve seen the number of subscribers to our weekly blog grow from dozens to scores to hundreds; now, there are almost 40,000 of you worldwide.

As we have grown, we have heard from readers from every walk of life and all corners of the earth. Some of you have been outspoken about things we could be doing better—and we are listening. We can’t forget an e-mail we received from a group of amateur linguists in England who felt we were too quick to label as “rules” what might better be termed conventions. One example of this distinction: although American writers and editors insist upon the placing of commas and periods inside quotation marks without exception, it nonetheless smacks of provincial pomposity to call this a “rule” of English when virtually every other English-speaking country ignores it.

So, with a nod to that shrewd e-mail, the new edition stresses the difference between rules on the one hand and conventions, customs, and tendencies on the other. For instance, there are ironclad rules for apostrophes—nowhere will you see the possessive of women written womens’. But other uses of the apostrophe are open for debate. Some write Learn your ABCs and others prefer your ABC’s. Some write the 1990s and others swear by the 1990’s.

The new Blue Book takes on English in all its often maddening complexity, acknowledging its quirks, gray areas, exceptions, limitations, and contradictions. We realize that people want straight answers, but with English, there sometimes aren’t any, and we would be remiss in saying otherwise.

Order the new edition of The Blue Book through and get 30 percent off and FREE shipping. Simply go to and use discount code E9X4AYY.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014, at 2:23 pm

Christmas ’Log Review

Every year, for six weeks or so, I get a taste of what it’s like to be a superstar.

From late October to early December, I am accosted daily by an aggressive mob of stalkers who know where I live. Their urgent need for my attention seems to be their only reason for being. No, they’re not paparazzi or obsessed fans. I’m talking about Christmas catalogs. Every day brings a new swarm—they burst out of my mailbox, entreating me to behold them in all their holiday finery.

Well, even a six-week celebrity has an obligation to his public. I checked out every last one. None was turned away. Here, then, is my Christmas catalog review.

For big spenders there is the stately Gump’s catalog, so tasteful you want to take a nap; or Neiman Marcus, with its sullen, stubbly, pasty pretty boys modeling $390 sneakers; or the gaudy Hammacher Schlemmer, for taste-challenged high-rollers: I’ve got to have that animatronic singing and talking Elvis, or more accurately, Elvis’ head and shoulders—the King has been mutilated, I guess, to spare the embarrassment of pelvic thrusts in mixed company. How about spoiling your child rotten with Hammacher’s “6½-foot teddy bear” for $500. If that’s too sissified, the NFL Shop will warp the values of your little tough guy with a personalized 12-minute CD of a football game in which the announcer says the kid’s name 30 times. It’s never too early to learn that it’s all about you.

Frontgate offers a machine that enriches your oxygen as it plays music. An up-and-comer called X-treme Geek has caffeinated soap, a talking toilet-tissue holder, and, for the guy whose girlfriend doesn’t hate him enough already, a Wild West revolver-shaped TV remote, which makes a loud gunshot as it changes channels. It comes with a “super-cool official-looking sheriff’s badge.”

The Signals company tempts pet lovers with the “I kiss my dog on the lips” T-shirt, but I have my eye on the coat rack with three duck tails for hangers. Not to be outdone, What on Earth offers a “cat butt magnet set,” to go with its flatulent toy puppy (“squeeze his belly”) and a Bill Clinton figurine with a corkscrew coming out of his pants.

Wolferman’s offers 44 pages of … muffins?! Fahrney’s offers 56 pages of … pens!? Don’t miss the Marlene Dietrich model (“sensuous curves in all the right places”), a bargain at $880, or the $3,000 “pen of the year” (who voted?).

From high-end catalogs on down, the one constant is the writing, which is excellent across the board. (Is this what good writers have to do to eat these days?) Oh, some are better than others. Fahrney’s thinks the plural of entry is “entrys”—a store devoted to writing can’t make such a dumb mistake. National Geographic’s otherwise classy mailer misfires with the awkward “spiders are one of the creepiest crawlers out there.” Spiders, plural, are “one”? Why not “a spider is”? Sahalie’s writes “completely waterproof.” How is that different from just “waterproof”? Orvis Men’s Clothing says, “Crafted in New England, you’ll appreciate the comfort.” This sentence, taken literally, means “you” were crafted in New England. Herrington’s high-spirited but sloppy catalog spells minuscule “miniscule.” Herrington is also one of many catalogs that can’t get the subject to agree with the verb: “Every one of our vintage Ferraris are parked …” No, every one is parked. Subject-verb agreement is a big problem nowadays, and reflects the carelessness and short attention spans this era will be remembered for.

When you read as many of these things as I did, you come to realize that catalogs have their own language, rules, and customs. Numbers are almost never spelled out, not even leading off a sentence. That’s against all civilized rules of writing, but merchants want to be direct, not correct. They’re targeting our eyes, not our brains. Capitals are thrown around extravagantly because anything capitalized looks Important and Impressive. Hyphens are avoided wherever possible because advertisers will always choose two simple words with a clean space between them over one long, confusing word with an ungainly bar right in the middle.

Many companies sell jewelry made with “Swarovski crystals,” a fancy term for rhinestones, which is in turn a euphemism for phony gemstones. And countless catalogs feature “nutcrackers,” so called because they were inspired by the popular Tchaikovsky Christmastime ballet. The 21st-century versions look to be useless, charmless statuettes, tackier than tin soldiers. You can get them wearing uniforms of your favorite pro sports team or branch of the military. Despite the name, I doubt they could even crack a moldy peanut. Their heads don’t even bobble.

Finally, see if you can figure out what this list of words culled from several catalogs refers to: chianti, chili, dirt, dragonfly, dusk, espresso, grasshopper, mineral, nutmeg, ocean, persimmon, raisin, root beer, sesame, spa, sweet pea, sweet potato, toast.

You might as well give up, because you’ll never guess. They’re … colors?! “Oh, sweetheart, you look fabulous in that root beer muumuu!” “Thank you, darling, and that dragonfly-and-dirt sweater goes so well with your spa-and-dusk striped tie and those toast trousers.”

—Tom Stern

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Posted on Thursday, December 12, 2013, at 7:12 pm

The Number vs. A Number

The expression the number is followed by a singular verb while the expression a number is followed by a plural verb.


The number of people we need to hire is thirteen.

A number of people have written in about this subject.

Read more…

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Posted on Thursday, December 9, 2010, at 9:01 am