The Grammarphobia Blog

Writing in style

Q: I was having a very pleasant brunch with two friends when the subject turned to the rules for using numbers. Friend One, a medical transcriptionist, complained that the style manual for her profession insisted that all numbers be expressed as numerals. Friend Two, a college librarian, offered that style manuals differed about numbers but one should follow the style for one’s profession despite objections. My contribution was that consistency should be the rule. I’d like to hear what you think. Do manuals of style rule in ordinary usage? How about manuscripts, novels, short stories? Help!

A: I do recommend using a style guide for ordinary usage as well as anything you write for a publisher. As far as the writing of numbers goes, the guidelines in Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, make sense to me.

In general, unless you’re writing something technical, Garner suggests spelling out all numbers of ten and below, and using digits for 11 and above. But he gives several exceptions (“$9 million,” “9 inches,” “4 p.m.,” “8 percent,” etc.) and recommends spelling out any number that begins a sentence.

If you consult his book you’ll find other exceptions. The style recommended by Garner is similar in many ways to that used in newspaper writing.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a scholarly article or book, you might be better off using The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition). Its style is very different (though it includes a chapter by Garner on grammar and usage).

The Chicago Manual generally spells out numbers one through one hundred, centuries, physical quantities and measurements, plus all round numbers in the hundreds, thousands, millions, and so on. (I wouldn’t use Chicago‘s style for numbers in personal writing, though; it’s much too cumbersome for correspondence and such.)

Different book and magazine publishers have their own styles for using numerals vs. words. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Use the publisher’s style manual if you have it. Otherwise, use your own judgment and be consistent. The publisher will change the style to suit itself.

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