Grammar Tips for Numbers and Numerals

Peggy Tabor Millin

Numerals or words? That is the question. As an editor, I commonly see confusion about this choice in the copy I read. These are general works, not scientific or financial ones to which different rules apply. The choice between spelling out numbers or using numerals is made according to the size of the number, whether it is approximate or exact, and in what context it appears.

            Memorize this general rule from the Chicago Manual of Style (15th Ed.): spell out numbers one through one hundred, round numbers, and any numbers beginning a sentence. One hundred twelve children rolled Easter eggs on the lawn. The graduating class totaled 112.  If many numbers appear in the same sentence or paragraph, go for consistency, readability, and clarity. The  CMS example reads: “A mixture of buildings—one of 103 stories, five or more than 50, and a dozen of only 3 or 4—has been suggested for the area.”

            The general rule also applies to dates and ordinals. Nineteen seven was the year my parents were born. My parents were born in 1907. He lived on the forty-fifth floor. She graduated 105th in her class. Some important rules about dates (ignoring these lead to common errors): Centuries are spelled out and lowercase. Computers didn’t crash as predicted when the twenty-first century began. The most common date-related error I see is the placing an apostrophe between the date and the s when referring to a decade. The cars of the 1950s were designed to symbolize American prosperity. I attended Berkeley in the sixties (or, in the ’60s). The first two decades of a century need special treatment and it is up to the author to clarify. If we said in the 2000s, we would interpret that to mean the entire century, so we might clarify by saying between 2000 and 2010.

            Here are some other number rules we trip over:

·        Percentages are always written as numerals with the word percent written out except in scientific or statistical copy as in 10 percent. When the % sign is used, no space is inserted between it and the number —10%.

·        If a decimal fraction is less than 1.00, insert a zero before the decimal point. The average dropped from 1.3 to 0.8.

·        Apply the same general rules concerning numbers or words to money. If the number is spelled out, we also spell out dollar(s) or cent(s). He gave me $115. She gave me twenty dollars.

·        Times of day in even, half, and quarter hours are usually spelled out. If using o’clock, always spell out the number. The party starts at quarter to five and ends at nine o’clock. The plane, due to arrive at 9:42 p.m., landed at midnight. (Note that a.m. and p.m. are lowercase and take periods after each letter, with no space between.) To avoid confusion, words are best used to indicate noon or midnight.

·        As with dates, written numbers form their plurals by adding s and no apostrophe is used. Among the scores were five 110s.

I hope this helps keep the numbers straight! Our writing represents us, when we are not physically present. The neatness and correctness on a job application or magazine submission are as important as our hair and attire at an interview or networking meeting. When in doubt, drag out the CMS, or hire a proofreader. It will be worth it.

Copyright 2008 by Peggy Tabor Millin    Working With Words

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