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.

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

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26 Comments on Numbers: Words or Numerals?

26 responses to “Numbers: Words or Numerals?”

  1. Debra G. says:

    Please clarify. When a sentence must begin with a year, is the year written out or expressed in numerals?

    • The Associated Press Stylebook says that a calendar year beginning a sentence would be written as a numeral. On the other hand, The Chicago Manual of Style says that a year beginning a sentence should be spelled out. However, Chicago recommends rewording the sentence. Instead of Nineteen ninety-eight was when … write The year 1998 was when …

  2. Ron O. says:

    I am confused about the presentation of people’s ages. Do we spell them out; twenty-three-years-old, or 23-years-old, or 23 years old?

    Thank you for your assistance.

    • Spelling out numbers vs. using numerals is largely a matter of writers’ preference as this post points out. Hyphens are used when the age represents a compound adjective. All of the following sentences are correct:

      She is 23 years old.
      She is twenty-three years old.
      I have a 23-year-old daughter.
      I have a twenty-three-year-old daughter.

  3. Scott says:

    This isn’t related specifically to this post, but the rules described within the ‘Writing Numbers’ post, which does not have commenting functionality.

    “Rule 3a. With figures of four or more digits, use commas. Count three spaces to the left to place the first comma. Continue placing commas after every three digits. Important: do not include decimal points when doing the counting.”

    The 22nd meeting (2003) of the General Conference on Weights and Measures reaffirmed the following standardisation: “numbers may be divided in groups of three in order to facilitate reading; neither dots nor commas are ever inserted in the spaces between groups”.

    Which standards are we best to follow?

    • Our website and the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation represent American English rules and measurements. From what we can tell, the General Conference on Weights and Measures deals with the metric system. If you follow British English rules, you should probably follow those standards.

  4. Briana says:

    Which is correct: 3-6 months, or three to six months?
    Since both 3 and 6 are under ten, should I spell it out?

  5. Patricia says:

    In a resume how would I reference “$50,000 to half a million dollars” Is this correct in this form?

  6. Sarah says:

    Which is correct 4X or four times the size?

  7. James says:

    Thank you for this wonderful website!

    I’m editing a history book for a friend and would like to know your opinion about which sample sentences are best.

    1. We were placed aboard a twenty-four thousand ton steamer headed for France.
    We were placed aboard a 24,000-ton steamer headed for France.

    2. They were looking for men taller than five feet seven inches.
    They were looking for men taller than 5 feet 7 inches.

    3. We received 80 cents a day for our labor.
    The workers earned eighty cents a day.

    In sentence No. 3, the first sentence is an example from one of the interviewees in the book. The second sentence is the author speaking about the workers in general. Shouldn’t we be consistent in either using numbers or spelling out the numbers, and do you have a preferred style in this case?

    • Spelling out numbers vs. using numerals is largely a matter of writers’ preference as this post points out. We agree with you that consistency is key. We recommend choosing either the AP or Chicago style guide described in the article and remaining consistent throughout the book. We noticed that item 1 should read “twenty-four-thousand-ton steamer.”

  8. Scotty Gustafski says:

    What is best to write? There are 50- 60-year-old people here! How does one address the 50- part to complete that sentence? Thank you!

  9. Chris says:

    Can you please clarify then if it would be written as “half-ton” or “half ton” … or should it then be “half a ton”?

    • As we explain in our post Hyphens with Numbers, inclusion of the hyphen depends on how the term is used in a sentence.
      “He ordered a half-ton load of bricks.” (The term is used as a compound adjective preceding a noun.)
      “The load of bricks weighed a half ton.” (The term is not used as a compound adjective preceding a noun.)
      “The load of bricks weighed half a ton” might be considered by some to be informal, but the meaning is clear, and we find it acceptable.
      The term half of a ton sounds a bit stilted, but could also have its place in a sentence such as “One thousand pounds is half of a ton.”

  10. Debbie Hugg says:

    I’ve been searching for thirty minutes and I STILL can’t find a solid answer on how to correctly write a
    875 or eight hundred seventy-five or eight hundred, seventy-five.

  11. Ahmed El Sarky says:

    How do you write one trillion one hundred twenty five billion dollars?

  12. Joellen Messerli says:

    Which is correct:

    “We invite you to the fourth program…”
    “We invite you to the 4th program….”

  13. Kelly Horn says:

    Is “6-monthly” correct in “a 6-monthly report”? The report is updated every 6 months.

    • As stated above, both of the leading style manuals recommend spelling out the number six. The compound adjective six-month may be a better choice to describe the noun report. However, we would write “Biannual Report.” While the terms biweekly and bimonthly have been misused to the point their meanings can be confused, biannual properly means only “twice a year.”

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