Numbers: Numerals or words?

Numbers can be expressed either as numerals (539; 4.49; 3,689) or as words (four, seventeen).* When do you use which?

Here are the general rules†:

1) spell out the numbers one through hundred

2) spell out round numbers with hundreds, thousands, hundred thousands, millions

So you would use:

seventy-eight; 3,589; 762; three million

However, percentages always take numerals:

25% or 25 percent
not: twenty-five percent or twenty-five %

(Note that there is no space in 25%.)

In fact, abbreviations always take numerals:

42°F
5’6”
47¢ (and not .47¢—unless of course you really mean less than half a cent!)

On the other hand, numbers with centuries are always spelled out:

the twenty-first century
not: the 21st century

Finally, there’s a third general rule that’s often flouted:

3) don’t begin a sentence with a numeral

Thus, you will want to avoid something like this:

97 Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

You could change this to:

Ninety-seven Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

Another solution (which avoids tampering with the actual title of the book) is to recast the sentence so it doesn’t start with the number:

Don Campbell’s 97 Tips for Canadian Real Estate Investors is a national bestseller.

Following these three simple rules will help you steer clear of 90 percent of the potholes with numbers!

Dirk

dirk_kievit@editors.ca
www.dirkkievit.org

*I am using the word numeral in the restricted sense that the Chicago Manual of Style uses it as non-spelled out forms. Other references (like the Canadian Oxford Dictionary) use the word numeral to refer to both the spelled out and non-spelled out forms.

†taken from the Chicago Manual of Style chapter 9

(Image at top courtesy of scottchan.)

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