Whether to express a number as word(s) or numeral(s) has a lot to do with style guides, and style guides have a lot to do with practicality and emphasis.

In a scientific or technical paper, such as one giving the results of a study, numbers are likely to be used a lot, and so numerals are used for all except one-digit numbers (zero through nine). Newspapers, which have to conserve space as much as possible and fit words into narrow columns, also follow that rule, so blog posts can also. On the other hand, subjects less concerned with frequent number use or space conservation generally write out any numbers that are easily expressed in words, such as one thousand but not 999.

Happily, there is one rule consistent across the board: if you start a sentence with a number, write it out.

Professional Examples

  • The class meets twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the clientele, about fifty undergraduates, tends to drag in and slump, looking disconsolate and a little lost, waiting for a jump start.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • A total of 112 children and fourteen different teachers (five head teachers and nine aides) were observed in these classrooms.

~from Karin A. Martin’s “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools”

  • When liberal reforms such as Title IX are fought for and won, the results—though not revolutionary—are often positive changes in individual lives.

~from Sharon Dworkin and Michael Messner’s “Just Do . . . What? Sport, Bodies, Gender”

  • Something similar is happening in the twenty-first century, in which each new day sees another Spanish-speaking Angeleno set off on Interstates 5, 10, 15 from the overcrowded metropolises of our state to the greener pastures of places like Pasco, Washington, or Fayetteville, Arkansas, or even New York City itself, and in so doing helps bring a bit of Los Angeles to those places too.

~from Hector Tobar’s Americanismo: City of Peasants

  • His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country.

~from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild

  • “The Schieffer interview actually brought in about twenty-five thousand visits in twenty-four hours.”

~from Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat

  • Above the screen there were eight clocks that pretty well summed up the Infosys workday: 24/7/365.

~from Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat

  • Merry Maids, the largest of the chains [in the housecleaning industry], has the advantage of being a unit within the $6.4 billion ServiceMaster conglomerate.

~from Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women’s Work”

  • But in a society in which 40 percent of the wealth is owned by 1 percent of households while the bottom 20 percent reports negative assets, the degradation of others is readily purchased.

~from Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Maid to Order: The Politics of Other Women’s Work”

  • The events of September 11, as well as of April 19, 1995 (the Oklahoma City bombing), resulted from an increasingly common combination of factors.

~from Michael Kimmel’s “Gender, Class, and Terrorism”

  • “Of the 20 occupations expected to grow the fastest, only six require college” (para. 17).

~from Jean Anyon’s “The Economic Is Political”

How Numbers Work

Style Guides

Number rules, as far as choosing between words and numerals, vary depending on the subject of the paper and the style guide used.

  • For MLA and literary or general subjects, write out numbers that can be expressed in one or two words, such as twenty seven or ten thousand.
  • When writing a more scientific, technical, or statistical paper, use figures for numbers that come before units of measurement and also for comparisons, such as how one study watched 75 participants while another tracked 20.

Beginning of a Sentence

Numbers are always written out as words when they come at the beginning of a sentence: “Fifty-thousand troops are being sent in,” or “Twenty-six percent of respondents agreed.” (If the number is awkward when worded, such as a decimal, consider moving it to a different place in the sentence.)

Certain Pairings

Unless at the beginning of a sentence, use numerals with abbreviations or symbols ($50, 3:50 p.m., 7 lbs, 6″, 700 BC), in addresses, in specific dates, in decimals, in page references (or paragraph, line, act, scene, verse, etc), and with proper nouns (Louis XIV, Channel 5, Interstate 15).

You can choose to write out dollar amounts and percentages, such as ten dollars and twenty percent, if you are using them infrequently, but don’t mix symbols and words. Times can be expressed in words when referring to even quarter hours in terms like ten o’clock, half past eight, or quarter to four. With dates, write centuries and decades in lowercase letters (nineteenth century or nineteen-twenties or the twenties) or with numerals (1800s or 1920s or the ’20s) but be consistent throughout your paper. Specific dates can be day-month-year or month-day-year (12 August 2008 or August 12, 2008) and again, it’s important to use the same form throughout.

A combination of words and figures should be used when it will help avoid confusion, as in “twelve 6-year-olds came to the party,” to avoid two figures or two words running together. Combinations also help express large dollar amounts, such as $34 million. Words and figures are also used together in legal and commercial writing, where the amount is repeated in parentheses in its other form: twenty-one (21) individuals filed complaints.

Series or Comparisons

With a list of numbers or when comparing numbers, keep the format consistent:

  • The shop had eight bicycles, twelve skateboards, and twenty-three helmets.
  • Though just 32 percent favored the proposition, only a much slimmer 8 percent were adamantly opposed.

Abbreviated Expressions

You might also notice that certain numerical expressions make more sense in figures than words, such as 24/7, meaning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The numerals can be considered an abbreviation of the full expression, which would be written out in words, as shown.


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