Should a number be written as a word or as a figure (e.g., a numeral)? There are no easy clear rules; there are only style guides that offer different opinions.
The Chicago Manual of Style states: “In nontechnical contexts, the following are spelled out: whole numbers from one through one hundred, round numbers, and any number beginning a sentence. For other numbers, numerals are used.”
The Associated Press Stylebook recommends: “Never begin a sentence with a figure, except for sentences that begin with a year. For cardinal numbers, consult individual entries in the Associated Press Stylebook. If no usage is specified, spell out numbers below 10 and use figures for numbers 10 and above.
On top of these, many writers make up their own rules. However, if there’s one top-level rule is that, whatever you do, do it consistently throughout your work.
Following are some general guidelines. Apply them as you see fit.
For numbers 1-9:
Use words. Examples: one, two, five, nine.
For numbers between 10 and 99:
Use figures. Examples: 10, 11, 25, 99.
For numbers between 100 and 999:
Never use the word and. As shrunk was misused in the movie Honey, I shrunk the Kids (it should have been shrank), so, too, was 101 misused in One Hundred and One Dalmatians; it should have been One Hundred One Dalmatians. Another example: The number 365, from above, should be written (or spoken) as three hundred sixty-five; not three hundred and sixty five. Even though these errors tend to happen more in speaking than in writing, be careful.
One reason that and is not used in these numbers is that it’s used to imply a decimal point. Example: 98.6 could be spoken or written as ninety-eight point six, but it also could be spoken or written as ninety-eight and six tenths. Here, the word and is used to indicate the decimal point. Another reason is that the word and is used in arithmetic to mean plus. Thus, 5 and 6 equals 11. Here’s an example on an even larger scale: the number 1,053,005 should be written (or spoken) as one million fifty-three thousand five.
Numbers with 4 digits or more
Use a comma after every three digits to the left, starting from the decimal point (actual or imaginary). Exception: No commas are used when referring to a year; e.g., 1776. Example: 1,234,567.
For numbers beginning a sentence:
Use words, not figures. Example: Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie; not 24 blackbirds baked in a pie.
For numbers ending in ‘y’:
Use a hyphen for numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine. Examples: 35 should be written as thirty-five; 365 should be written as three hundred sixty-five. Note: When written, there’s no hyphen between the number of hundreds (three) and the word hundred, but there is one between the sixty and the five. Note: This same rule applies to fractions that are written out (e.g., One-quarter may be written as 0.25. But, do not use a hyphen for: a third or a half.).
Write decimal numbers using figures (e.g., 8.625). If the number you’re writing is less than one, put a zero to the left of the decimal point (e.g., 0.625)
Mixing words and figures:
In spite of the above rules, you shouldn’t mix words and figures when dealing with the same subject. For example, the following sentence is okay: Marty has 3 baseball cards, but Billy has 33. However, when referring to different subjects, it’s acceptable to mix words and figures. Example: He gave me three baseball cards in exchange for 12 sticks of gum.
For numbers used with decades
Decades (periods of 10 years) may be described using words (e.g., fifties, eighties) or figures (1950s, 1980s). Note: Do no use an apostrophe before the letter s; ‘s indicates a possessive noun or a contraction. However, if describing a decade, it’s acceptable to put an apostrophe before the number to replace the century (e.g., ‘50s, ‘80s). But use care here; if it’s not clear which century the decade belongs to (eg, ‘50s = 1850s or 1950s), it should be written fully (e.g., 1950s).
For numbers used with centuries
Use words to describe the time period. Examples: sixteenth century (1500s), twentieth century (1900s). However, sometimes informally, these may be written as 16th century or 20th century.
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