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.
Q. Hi—My Manual of Style is buried in a box at home after a move, and we’re having a debate at work. When should numbers be spelled out, and when should they be written in numerals?
A. Chicago’s general rule is expressed in section 9.2: “In nontechnical contexts, Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers.” Since there are numerous exceptions and special cases, however, you really need to finish unpacking and read chapter 9. (I can’t believe you forgot to put CMOS in the “Open Me First” box with the toilet paper, box cutter, and Band-Aids.)
Q. When hours and minutes are mixed in a sentence that is describing a duration, are all numerals used? For instance, is it “The spacewalk lasted 7 hours and 54 minutes” or “The spacewalk lasted seven hours and 54 minutes”?
A. Chicago style allows for mixing numerals and spelled numbers if they describe different categories of objects (like hours and minutes). All the numbers in a given category should be treated the same way. So both your versions are fine, although our preferred rendering would be “The spacewalk lasted seven hours and fifty-four minutes.”
Q. In a work of fiction, should all numbers be spelled out in dialogue?
A. Spell out numbers in dialogue whenever it can be done without awkwardness. Years, for example, are better rendered as numerals. For more guidance, see CMOS 13.42.
Q. I’m editing the autobiography of a delightful, elderly R&B songwriter who writes of his song reaching “#3” on the Billboard chart, but later writes of having a “top ten” hit. Are there special rules for documenting music charting, or should we spell out all numerical positions to be consistent with CMOS? In some paragraphs, he lists the many chart positions reached by his songs, so spelling out makes the section difficult to read. I don’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him that we should just summarize his chart-topping accomplishments or put them in an appendix. Egad—am I too tenderhearted to be an editor?
A. A tender heart is an asset to an editor: it helps us be ruthless in a tactful way. I’m sure you can find a way to suggest that your author “showcase” (for instance) his stats in an attractive table in order to eliminate the unsightly boogers (you can put this more delicately) in the paragraph you describe. Otherwise, yes, it’s a good strategy to modify a style in a particular area of a manuscript if the prevailing style becomes unwieldy, and in this case you could use numerals rather than spell out the numbers. You might also consider styling chart position numbers this way throughout the manuscript.
Q. Section 9.18 (16th ed.) says always use numerals for percentages. Fine. But I’m editing a book of fiction. One paragraph of narration uses a percentage, and then the next paragraph uses a percentage in dialogue. What to do? Here’s an example: Steven was told that 78 percent of the neighborhood had been spared. “Yeah, but what are we to do about the remaining twenty-two percent?” he groaned.
A. You can leave it as you have it, or, if that bothers you, you can spell out the numerals for the sake of “regional consistency.”
Q. How does a person write out ninety-two thousand, fifty-five dollars in numeral form? I should know this, but I’m stumped.
A. $92,055. (That’s okay. We all have those moments.)
Q. I’m writing dialogue with blood pressure values. I’m OK with my doc saying, “Your last reading was one twenty-nine.” But what do I do with a reading of 101? “One zero one” sounds like Mr. Spock. “One oh one” is the way people speak, but “oh” may be confused with the exclamation. “One hundred and one” sounds like a temperature, not a blood pressure. Plus, this form would require me to use “one hundred and twenty-nine,” etc., for consistency. “One hundred one” is probably correct, but sounds awkward, and might be confused with repetition: “That’s one hundred—one.” Should I just give up and use numerals?
A. If you want to spell these out the way people talk, consistency isn’t an issue. Write “one twenty-nine” and “a hundred and one.” Alternatively, use numerals. For more guidance, see CMOS 13.42.
Q. This has to do with page ranges for a bibliography, as described in CMOS. It is clear that 125–29 is correct and 125–129 is not. However, it is not clear what to do with a range like 145–155. Should it be 145–55 or 145–155? The trouble comes from the part of the explanation that reads “use two or more digits as needed” and the lack of examples to address this particular situation. I would think 145–55 is sufficient, but then, I don’t trust my own intuition because 125–9 seems sufficient to me, too. And that is wrong. Please help!
A. Using “two or more digits as needed,” a rule of thumb for certain inclusive numbers, means using more than one digit but no more digits than you need: 145–155 uses more digits than you need, and 125–9 uses only one digit, so 145–55 and 125–29 are Chicago’s preferred style. However, 145–155 (using all digits) and 125–9 (using only the digits that change) are also perfectly good styles; CMOS includes them as alternatives.
Q. I have been under the impression that extensions on a date (st, nd , rd, etc.) are proper when used simply with a month (January 15th) but are not used in connection with a year (January 15, 2009). Please advise if this is correct or provide instruction to the contrary.
A. Chicago style doesn't include the extensions in either case. When the ordinal is called for, we spell it out: the fifth of the month. That said, the style that you describe is common and not incorrect.
Q. In expressing the statistical change in GDP figures over the course of multiple decades, would it be most correct to write “2000% increase,” “2,000% increase,” or “2,000 percent increase”? Our copyeditor favors the second option, but the use of the comma in that context just doesn’t sit right with me. Please advise.
A. All those styles are acceptable. In text, Chicago style spells out “percent” and favors a comma in integers over 999, but if your numbers appear in a table, “2000%” might look better.
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