Except for a few basic rules, spelling out numbers vs. using figures (also called numerals) is largely a matter of writers' preference. Again, consistency is the key.
Policies and philosophies vary from medium to medium. 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.
This is a complex topic, with many exceptions, and there is no consistency we can rely on among blogs, books, newspapers, and magazines. This chapter will confine itself to rules that all media seem to agree on.
Rule 1. Spell out all numbers beginning a sentence.
Twenty-three hundred sixty-one victims were hospitalized.
Nineteen fifty-six was quite a year.
Note: The Associated Press Stylebook makes an exception for years.
Example:1956 was quite a year.
Rule 2a. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.
Forty-three people were injured in the train wreck.
Twenty-seven of them were hospitalized.
Rule 2b. Hyphenate all written-out fractions.
We recovered about two-thirds of the stolen cash.
One-half is slightly less than five-eighths.
However, do not hyphenate terms like a third or a half.
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.
Note: Some choose not to use commas with four-digit numbers, but this practice is not recommended.
Rule 3b. It is not necessary to use a decimal point or a dollar sign when writing out sums of less than a dollar.
Not Advised:He had only $0.60.
He had only sixty cents.
He had only 60 cents.
Rule 3c. Do not add the word "dollars" to figures preceded by a dollar sign.
Incorrect: I have $1,250 dollars in my checking account.
Correct: I have $1,250 in my checking account.
Rule 4a. For clarity, use noon and midnight rather than 12:00 PM and 12:00 AM.
AM and PM are also written A.M. and P.M., a.m. and p.m., and am and pm. Some put a space between the time and AM or PM.
Others write times using no space before AM or PM.
For the top of the hour, some write 9:00 PM, whereas others drop the :00 and write 9 PM (or 9 p.m., 9pm, etc.).
Rule 4b. Using numerals for the time of day has become widely accepted.
The flight leaves at 6:22 a.m.
Please arrive by 12:30 sharp.
However, some writers prefer to spell out the time, particularly when using o'clock.
She takes the four thirty-five train.
The baby wakes up at five o'clock in the morning.
Rule 5. Mixed fractions are often expressed in figures unless they begin a sentence.
We expect a 5 1/2 percent wage increase.
Five and one-half percent was the expected wage increase.
Rule 6. The simplest way to express large numbers is usually best.
Example:twenty-three hundred (simpler than two thousand three hundred)
Large round numbers are often spelled out, but be consistent within a sentence.
Consistent:You can earn from one million to five million dollars.
Inconsistent:You can earn from one million dollars to 5 million dollars.
Inconsistent:You can earn from $1 million to five million dollars.
Rule 7. Write decimals using figures. As a courtesy to readers, many writers put a zero in front of the decimal point.
The plant grew 0.79 inches last year.
The plant grew only 0.07 inches this year.
Rule 8a. When writing out a number of three or more digits, the word and is not necessary. However, use the word and to express any decimal points that may accompany these numbers.
one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars
one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Simpler:eleven hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Rule 8b. When writing out numbers above 999, do not use commas.
Incorrect: one thousand, one hundred fifty-four dollars, and sixty-one cents
Correct: one thousand one hundred fifty-four dollars and sixty-one cents
Rule 9. The following examples are typical when using figures to express dates.
the 30th of June, 1934
June 30, 1934 (no -th necessary)
Rule 10. When spelling out decades, do not capitalize them.
Example:During the eighties and nineties, the U.S. economy grew.
Rule 11. When expressing decades using figures, it is simpler to put an apostrophe before the incomplete numeral and no apostrophe between the number and the s.
Example:During the '80s and '90s, the U.S. economy grew.
Some writers place an apostrophe after the number:
Example:During the 80's and 90's, the U.S. economy grew.
Awkward:During the '80's and '90's, the U.S. economy grew.
Rule 12. You may also express decades in complete numerals. Again, it is cleaner to avoid an apostrophe between the year and the s.
Example:During the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. economy grew.
Numbered, Vertical ("Display"), and Bulleted Lists
Writing and reference manuals offer different advice for creating lists. It seems that as long as you're consistent within your document, you can devise just about any means you want for creating your lists, whether you want them as run-in lists (built into the flow of your text) or as vertical lists (indented and stacked up). Technical writing may have its own requirements in this regard, and you should consult a technical writing manual for specific rules. Use parentheses around the numbers (no periods after the number, though) when using a run-in list:
I have three items to discuss: (1) the first item; (2) the second item; and (3) the third item.
Use semicolons to separate the items, whether they're expressed as fragments or full sentences.
For a vertical list (sometimes called a display list), you may choose to capitalize the items or not, and you may choose to put a comma after each item or not. (If you use commas, put a period after the last item.)
We will now review the following three principles:
- fairness in recruiting
- academic eligibility
- scholarly integrity
Your choice to capitalize or not may depend on how elaborate your lists are and how many of them you have in your text. If a vertical list contains complete sentences or lengthy and complex items, you may prefer to end each element in the list with a semicolon, except for the last element, which you will end with a period.
Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting new players:
- Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year;
- Look for players who are "court smart" as opposed to being merely athletic;
- Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college.
Although the elements in the list above begin with capital letters, that is not absolutely necessary. Notice that there is no "and" at the end of the next-to-last element (although some reference manuals allow for or recommend its use). Although we have used numbers for this list, bullets would work equally well if numbering seems inappropriate or irrelevant. The list below is based on a format suggested by the New York Public Library's Writer's Guide to Style and Usage:
Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting new players
- Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year
- Look for players who are "court-smart" as opposed to being merely athletic
- Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college
Note that this format does not include a period even at the end of the last element. Most writers, however, want to use some kind of punctuation in their listed items. When the introductory statement is a complete sentence, you can end it with either a period or a colon. Use a colon if the sentence is clearly anticipatory of the list, especially if it contains phrasing such as the following or as follows. A colon is also appropriate if the list that follows will be numbered or will establish a priority order. If the introductory statement is not a complete statement, however, neither a period nor a colon would be appropriate since that would interrupt the grammatical structure of the statement; use either no punctuation or try the dash technique noted above.
Listing Names in Alphabetical Order
Putting people's names in alphabetical order is done on a letter-by-letter basis, taking into consideration all the letters before the comma that separates the last from the first name. Omit titles (such as Lady, Sir, Sister), degrees (M.D., Ph.D.), etc., that precede or follow names. A suffix that is an essential part of the name such as Jr., Sr., or a roman numeral appears after the given name, preceded by a comma. (Ford, Henry J., III or Pepin, Theophilus, Jr.)
Beethoven, Ludwig van (The van or von in Dutch or German names, if not capitalized by family usage,appears after the first name; if capitalized, it appears before the last name and determines the alphabetical order.)
Deere-Brown, Juan (Ignore the hyphen.)
Dante Alighieri (Some Italian names of the 15th century or before are alphabetized by first name)
de Gaulle, Charles (With French names, the de goes before the last name when the last name contains only one syllable. See de Maupassant, below.)
Ford, Henry E., III
Garcia Lorca, Federico (Use full surnames for Spanish names.)
López y Quintana, María
Maupassant, Guy de
O'Keeffe, Georgia (Ignore the apostrophe.)
Pepin, R. E.
Pepin, Theophilus, Jr.
Rueda, Lope de (For Spanish names, de comes after the first name)
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de
San Marco, Josefina
St. Denis, Ruth
Von Braun, Werner (See Beethoven, above.)