When Writing An Essay What Numbers Do You Spell Out

Numbers take up their own planet in the style universe, so let’s explore it one mountain at a time. This post covers the basic rules and the basic exceptions. (They’re like siblings, I tell ya.) After we get the fundamentals out of the way, we can move on to fun subcategories, such as money and measurements!

Here’s a little number warm-up to get your brains up and running.

  • Cardinal numbers: one, 7, forty-one, one hundred nine, 852, three thousand sixty-one
  • Ordinal numbers: 1st, seventh, 41st, 109th, eight hundred fifty-second, 3,061st
  • Arabic numerals: 1, 7, 41, 109, 852, 3,061
  • Roman numerals: I, VII, XLI, CIX, DCCCLII, MMMLXI




The best way to commit these distinctions to your long-term memory is to type them out and make up a string of examples for each. (Trust me.)

The best way to commit these distinctions to your long-term memory is to type them out and make up a string of examples for each. (Trust me.)

The Associated Press Stylebook prefers the ambiguous word figure to refer to number symbols (e.g., 1, 2, 3), choosing to broadly define numeral as, among other things, “[a] word or group of words” (p. 201). I’m sticking to the definition in AP’s dictionary of choice, Webster’s New World College Dictionary—“a figure, letter, or a group of any of these, expressing a number.” TheChicago Manual of Style differentiates numerals from words as well.

Basic Number Rules (for Nontechnical Copy)

AP (p. 203)

  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) nine (e.g., zero, one, 10, 96, 104).
  • Spell out casual expressions: A picture is worth a thousand words, but a really good one is worth a thousand dollars.

Chicago (9.2-4, 9.8)

  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) one hundred (e.g., zero, one, ten, ninety-six, 104).
  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) one hundred when followed by hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and so on (e.g., eight hundred, 12,908, three hundred thousand, twenty-seven trillion).
  • Alternative rule: Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) nine, and use numerals for the rest. That’s right, you have a choice. Control yourselves or we will make you spell out phone numbers in the 17th edition.

Control yourselves or we will make you spell out phone numbers in the 17th edition.

Numbers Beginning a Sentence

AP (p. 202)

  • Spell out numbers that begin a sentence unless it begins with a year (e.g., Twelve drummers, The 10 lords a-leaping, 2011’s quota for off-season holiday references has been filled).

Chicago (9.5)

  • Always spell out numbers that begin a sentence, or reword to avoid unwieldiness. Well, if you think that Nineteen ninety-one looks more awesome than The year 1991, then go right ahead. [Awkward silence as double bind takes effect]

There is no and when you spell out whole numbers (e.g., one hundred one Dalmatians, not one hundred and one Dalmatians).


Ordinals

AP (p. 202)

  • Spell out ordinal numbers up to (and including) ninth when indicating sequence in time or location (e.g., first kiss, 11th hour) but not when indicating sequence in naming conventions (usually geographic, military, or political, e.g., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals).

Chicago (9.6)

  • Spell out ordinal numbers up to (and including) hundredth (e.g., second, sixty-first, 333rd, 1,024th).

A Word About Consistency

AP (p. 203)

  • If you’re juggling a bunch of numbers within the same sentence, stick to the rules as stated and you’ll be fine. Breathe.

Chicago (9.7)

  • If you’re juggling a bunch of numbers within the same paragraph or series of paragraphs, be flexible with the number style if doing so will improve clarity and comprehension. For example, use one number style for items in one category and another style for another category: “I read four books with more than 400 pages, sixty books with more than 100 pages, and a hundred articles with fewer than 4 pages.”

Now that the basics of number style have been laid out, I bet that you can smell the exceptions 1.1 miles away. [A beat, then exit stage right]

Q: Sometimes I see numbers spelled out (nine) and at other times I see them in numeric form (9). Which is correct? When do I spell out numbers and when do I write them out? —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.

Check out these Grammar Rules to help you write better:
Sneaked vs. Snuck
Who vs. Whom
Lay vs. Lie vs. Laid 
Which vs. That
Since vs. Because
Ensure vs. Insure
Home in vs. Hone in
Leaped vs. Leapt

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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