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When Do I Spell Out Numbers?

Categories: Formatting, Grammar.
Q: Sometimes I see numbers spelled out (nine) and at other times I see them in numeric form (9). Which is correct?—Kevin T.

A: Most writers—including me—took on this artistic profession for three reasons: We’re creative, we love to read and, most important, we want to avoid numbers at all costs. Yet somehow, even in writing, numbers have found a way to sneak back into our lives. 

There are several rules of thought on how to handle writing numbers, but the most common is pretty simple. Spell out numbers under 10 (zero through nine), and use the numeric symbols for numbers 10 and up. I bought eight candy bars from the vending machineI average eating 29 candy bars per month.

There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, spell out all numbers that begin a sentence. Forty-seven-thousand contestants were turned down for “American Idol.” Eleven were selected. Of course, there’s an exception to the exception: Don’t spell out calendar years, even at the front end of a sentence. 1997 was the year I met my wife. And, if you don’t feel like writing those long, awkward-looking numbers, just recast the sentence. American Idol turned down 47,000 contestants.  I met my wife in the magical year of 1997.

Also, there are other instances where the under-10/over-10 rule doesn’t apply.  Always use figures for ages of people (“He’s 9 years old”), dates (February 14), monetary amounts ($8), percentages (14 percent) and ratios (2-to-1).

Again, this is a style issue and other sources may suggest different ways of handling numbers. So please, no hate mail. And let’s agree not to talk about numbers for the rest of the day—they make my head hurt.

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6 Responses to When Do I Spell Out Numbers?

  1. Rita Smith says:

    Thank you. That was helpful. I had the wrong information on how to write numbers. I think someone told me to spell them all out, what a pain.

  2. Mike Morell says:

    Good stuff on numbers. Now, I’ve a Q on like v. as, as in He’s blind like a bat. He’s blind as a bat.

  3. What about if you use an under ten number and an over ten number in the same sentence? i.e. Pick up three bags of chips and 11 tomatoes from the grocery store.

    Would someone consider this um, ‘uneven’ not uniformed? Out of synch?

    thanks for clearning up the numbers issue for me, you are correct – being creative, we avoid numbers. :-)


  4. Gabrielle L says:

    Hi, Brian–

    I had a question about word count for novels. I know typical novels run from 80,000-100,000; that anything below 65,000 is a novella, etc. But what’s an acceptable word count for young adult books, that tend to be shorter than their adult counterparts?


    Gabrielle L.

  5. Eileen says:

    One-erful, 1-erful! Lots of good info – I learned a alot. Especially about handling calendar years and ages, which I’ve been doing wrong. (Fortunatatly the *numb-er police* haven’t jailed me just yet. ) EE

  6. If the following is not the beginning word of a sentence, should dna etc. be capitalized, and/or the letters spaced?
    What about the names of cars?

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