Should numbers be written as words or numerals?

Posted on September 24, 2019

 

We formulate our writing with letters, but there are times when we need some help from numbers too. Aside from the fact that we often need to indicate quantity, consider how many common sayings use them, such as:

– Back to square one
– Three’s a crowd
– A five-star performance
– At sixes and sevens
– On cloud nine
– A Catch 22 situation
– A 50-50 decision
– Giving 110%

So, if we need to mention a number, when should we write it as a word (like ‘four’, ‘seventeen’ or ‘thirty-three’) and when as a numeral (4, 17 or 33)?

Here are some points to help you make your decision.

How big is the number?

Publishers have different guidelines as to how big a number should be before it becomes better suited to its numerical form than its written. Some might say anything up to 100 should be written as a word, but more commonly, the changing point is 10, and that’s the house rule we stick to here at Engage Web.

The start of a sentence

There’s no denying it – a number at the start of a sentence looks ugly! That’s why you might want to consider bending the above rule a little for sentences like the below:

“Twelve people can fit into this lift.”

“Twenty buildings in the town are Grade I listed.”

However, this starts to become rather ungainly if you start writing sentences like “Forty thousand six hundred and thirty-eight people were at the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match on Sunday”, or if you begin a sentence with a year (Two thousand and sixteen was the warmest year on record). In such cases, you might want to look at restructuring the sentence, such as:

“Sunday’s Chelsea vs. Liverpool match had an attendance of 40,638.”

“The warmest year on record was 2016.”

Consistency

If you stick rigidly to writing numbers below 10 as words and above as numerals, what if you’re using single-digit and double-digit numbers in the same sentence? For example, should you be writing about a club open to children between the ages of “eight and 12”?

This looks peculiar, so relax your rule a little bit in these cases. For the above example, it would be advisable to write both as numerals.

Dates and other mathematical uses

This is a little more complicated and requires a bit more of a judgement call.

For dates, it’s better to write them as numerals even if they are below 10, so use ‘August 2’ or ‘August 2nd’ rather than ‘August the Second’, which looks like you’re being a little too elaborate.

Any time numbers are used to indicate mathematical order rather than how many of something can be counted, it’s better to use the numeral, such as for numbered lists.

Proper nouns

Lastly, and fairly obviously, don’t “correct” any proper nouns to fit your number-writing conventions. You shouldn’t be writing about the dance act ‘Two Unlimited’, or the film ‘Ocean’s 11’.

These are not necessarily hard and fast rules, and some businesses like to use numerals heavily for emphasis. For example, you might like to start a sentence with “50,000 people helped…” if you feel it helps draw attention to the large number. It’s up to you, but be sure to pick a convention and stick to it throughout your copy.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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