We’re here with another dose of Grammar Time! Today we’ll be talking all about numbers and some basic rules for using them properly.
General Rules for Spelling Out Vs. Using Numerals
The general rule of thumb is to spell out numbers that are small, easily understood, or divisible. It’s easier to say “four people” than “four thousand, seven hundred, and eighty-six people.” The latter example looks cleaner as “4,786 people.”
Other examples of numbers that are easier to spell out are:
- Single-digit numbers (one, two, three, four)
- Numbers divisible by ten (twenty, thirty, one hundred)
- Other large numbers divisible by one hundred (one million, trillion, billion)
Notice how numbers not divisible by ten have the hyphen. So, you would need a hyphen for “twenty-five” but not “one trillion.” To learn more about using hyphens with numbers, check out what Chicago and Grammarly say.
However, some numbers are better kept in their full numeral form. Those kinds of numbers usually fall into these categories:
- Fractions (1/5, 2/3, 5/7, 9¾ )
- Decimals (4.33, 15.7, 13,890.5)
- Numbers not divisible by ten or five (52, 67, 91)
- Long and specific numbers (1,207)
The point of spelling out versus using numerals is to help your readers get the point quickly. Notice how earlier we said it was “cleaner” to say “4,786 people;” it means the reader doesn’t have to actively translate the amounts as they read. So, when determining which is better, consider which is more useful to your reader.
For example, a recipe is often easier to read with numbers (e.g. 1 cup of sugar, not one cup) even though one through ten are usually spelled out. Conversely, a novel might lose its mood if you were to write “Suddenly, 1,267 tiny spiders spilled out of the crack in the wall.” Something like “Thousands of tiny spiders spilled out of the crack in the wall” is probably closer to the desired mood because the reader doesn’t need an exact count to feel goosebumps.
What Happens If Two Numbers Are Next to Each Other?
According to most style guides, if numbers are right next to each other, you should choose some numbers to spell out and keep some numbers as numerals. Say your sentence involves more than one fifth grader; to avoid confusion, you’ll need to treat each number differently so it can’t be interpreted as one-fifth of a grader. Here is one example:
“After school, the principal met with three 5th graders.”
It’s clear that the principal is meeting with three kids and they are all in the fifth grade. Your sentence could switch the rules around to read as “3 fifth graders,” but the first example will likely get the message across more efficiently.
To keep things consistent throughout a story, news article, or essay, stick with a single style. Meaning, if you wish to use a numeral for “5th graders” in one sentence, all other instances of a child’s school level should be treated the same. Remember, it’s not right or wrong to choose 5th or fifth—you just need to pick one and stick with it throughout the document.
Hopefully this quick look at numbers will help you craft clearer sentences. Until next time!