The Numbers Game

by Cherie Tucker

Most people know they should spell out the numbers between 1 and 10, but then why didn’t I just then?  There are numerous rules about numbers, but here are a few that come up most often.

Yes, you should generally use words and not numerals for the numbers 10 and under. However, when the numbers need “to stand out for quick comprehension,” as it says in The Gregg Reference Manual (which all writers should own by now), use the numerals. That definition includes technical numbers, statistics, time, grades, and all those kinds of things that spelling out would take the reader longer to register, such as:  

My son got a three-point-six-seven final grade in his chemistry class. 
Take the Highway Ninety-nine exit.  
I’ll see you at three-thirty.

Another rule applies when you have related numbers in a series that start below 10 but then go above it.  In that instance don’t spell out the lower numbers and then use numerals for the higher; use numerals for all of them.

We packed 6 sandwiches, 6 apples, 12 bottles of water, and 3 bags of candy.
Finally, if your sentence begins with a number, you must spell that number out.  A sudden appearance of a numeral after the previous sentence has ended with a period often confuses the reader.

They couldn’t believe they’d won. 6 of their starters had the flu.

This rule is especially important if the sentence needs to start with a date.  You must finagle it so that the first word is not the year. 

1960 was the year the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.  

An easy fix is putting a little preposition before the date:  In 1960 the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.  Or change the order:  In the 1960 Rose Bowl, the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin. 

Easy as 1, 2, 3.  

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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