Numbers Game: The Art and Math of Citing Numbers in Your Writing

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Express numbers clearly and professionally in your writing • When to use numerals versus when to use words • Be specific, to a point
Numbers Game: The Art and Math of Citing Numbers in Your Writing

Numbers Game: The Art and Math of Citing Numbers in Your Writing

As an author, how often do you struggle with citing numbers in your writing? Maybe you oscillate between spelled-out numbers and Arabic numerals, aren't sure how to spell out the time of day, or can't decide how many digits are too many.

This handy guide from guest author Vicky Oliver, career development expert and five-time author, answers these questions and more. Follow along, take notes, and learn how to reference numbers clearly and professionally in your writing.


By Vicky Oliver

Pick a number, any number. Let’s take the number seventeen. Should that be spelled out or depicted as 17?

In writing, much confusion surrounds the rules pertaining to when to spell out numbers and when to use figures. Whether you’re a literary writer who now needs to market your writing, a marketer who needs to promote a service, a blogger, or an entrepreneur with a product to sell, chances are you will need to grapple with how to portray numbers in your copy. When you see sixes and 7s, how are you to know who has it right?

Fortunately, some basic rules apply regardless of the source. Your choice of using figures over letters or vice versa can make the difference between writing like a novice or like a professional.

Here are 10 pointers to turn you into a professional writer when it comes to referring to numbers.

1. Separate singles from doubles.

In general, substitute written words for single-digit numbers one through nine. For example, “Take two spoonfuls in the morning and one in the evening.” Meanwhile, give double-digit numbers distinction using numerals. “It’s 10 steps to the ice-cream parlor, Joey. Stop being truculent!”

2. Write attention-grabbing headlines.

Headlines are intended to grab the reader’s attention with a brief, pithy phrase. Substituting a figure for a spelled-out number reduces clutter and provides the reader an at-a-glance grasp of your topic. For example, “Top 5 Reasons to Kiss 2020 Goodbye!”

3. Use words to capture numbers when beginning sentences.

Always start a sentence with the spelled-out number, regardless of whether it is double-digit or not. “Twelve is a difficult age for most kids.” Or, you may want to consider rewording the sentence so that the number falls somewhere other than at the beginning. “When my kid turned 12, havoc reigned.”

4. Strive for clarity.

If you choose to write out numbers, put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Think of your poor reader trying to puzzle out the number forty-two thousand seven hundred twenty-nine and six-tenths.

5. State your age.

Figures are fitting for referring to exact ages, such as “she intended to stay 29 forever.” But when approximating someone’s age, use words: “I think she’s thirty-something,” or “he looks to be in his forties.”

6. Tell the exact time.

When referring to a specific time in hours and minutes, such as 3:04, use figures. However, spell out the hour if it is followed by “o’clock,” (for example, “three o’clock). Of course, noon and midnight are more easily recognizable than 12:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. or twelve o’clock.

7. Zero in on dates.

Use figures when referring to days of the month, regardless of whether the day precedes or follows the month — as in May 7, 2021, or the 7th of May. But, if you have a choice, spelling out the word “May” is clearer than reducing the month to a figure, i.e. 5/7/21.

8. Talk money in cold, hard figures.

Display currency amounts as figures until you reach one million. “The sweater cost $60.72—a bargain!” Then, use the words million, billion, trillion, and so on to substitute for all the zeros.

9. Designate clothing sizes fittingly.

Symbols associated with clothing sizes are likely to correspond to actual measurements in men’s clothing, with numbers representing waist and inseam sizes for pants (31” by 33”) and neck circumference and sleeve length for shirts (15-1/2”; 34”). With women, sizes start in single digits. Yet representing sizes in written form remains standardized. Women’s sizes are in even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20) and Juniors’ sizes in odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19). Sizing can also be conveyed as XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL and XXXL.

10. Convey quantities correctly.

When writing any number before a unit of measurement, use figures exclusively unless of course the number is at the beginning of a sentence. For example, “The 8-inch frame was too large” or, “The temperature dropped to 2 degrees Fahrenheit.” But, “Six degrees separate you and Kevin Bacon.” This pointer also applies to percentages, decimals, and fractions.

Be Consistent.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Be that as it may, consistency is the ink from which smart writing flows. When citing numbers in your prose, the most important aspect is to remain consistent. You can break a rule, but at least if you break it consistently, those reading your words will consider you an authority.

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Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-bestselling author of five books, including Power Sales Words: How to Write It, Say It, and Sell It with Sizzle (Sourcebooks, 2006). She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.

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