Whether you write non-fiction, fiction, articles, reviews, or readers’ letters occasionally - you will at some stage find yourself using numbers. We’re all very good at the words ... like this; where we add a few letters together. How rapidly can you remember when a number should be spelt out (written as a word), or written as a figure? Is it two, or 2, thirty, or 30?
Like many areas of writing, I rely on my military background for a description, and numbers are described by that old faithful; a bloody minefield.
Let’s first look at the circumstances. If you are writing for a magazine, newspaper, or any established publication, you should have little to worry you. Every publication has a ‘house style’, or ‘submission guidelines’, which will keep you in line. This is equally true of feature/article writing, or non-fiction. Imagine you’re about to write a piece for ‘Young Scientist and Inventor’, or some similarly titled magazine - it will have its own rules.
I make no apologies for using bullet points. (military again ...)
A number used at the start of a sentence should be spelt out, so the easiest thing to do, is avoid it, by restructuring the sentence. That is a simple option; just don’t start a sentence with a number.
If the number is between one and ten, it should be spelt out. Any number from 11 upwards (with some exceptions) should be shown as figures. I'll refer to these two main groups as 'categories' from here onwards.
If two ‘different’ categories of number are to appear in the same sentence, then a fair guide is to show both as spelt out - not one spelt out, and the other as a figure.
If two different categories of number are to appear in the same sentence, give preference to the style used for the first one. Jack was a 14-year-old, but his sister was only a 9-year-old.
Thousands are relatively easy. Think back to the school days; count back three figures from the right, and add a comma. For example: 2,000; 45,679; 3,508.
Millions, trillions, zillions ... well, you get the idea. Millions and other numbers with an excessive zero count, should be spelt out; four million; 36 million; etc. Not 13,000,000
If using a range of numbers to give an approximation, but they are different categories, then they should be spelt out; There were between nine and fourteen cars parked outside.
When writing fractions, avoid using the backslash/oblique key to show them. If the number is a vulgar fraction, write it in full: three quarters of the area; two thirds of the liquid; a three-quarter measure of the medicine. If necessary to show a measurement; use decimals; 8.5 litres, 3.5 kilometres.
Percentages should be written in full; 15 per cent, or four per cent. The % symbol would normally only be used in a factual paper or report.
Exceptions to the aforementioned rules:
- Distance can be abbreviated: 4km
- Historical time: 5th century
- Time of day: 5a.m. My personal preference is to use a 24-hour clock; 12:15hrs. It depends on the story, but I might use the ‘am’ or ‘pm’ without a full stop after the letters. The key thing is to be consistent for the sake of the reader.
- Temperatures: 10° C (Yes, the degree symbol is a tricky one. If you want to show off and use it, click the question mark at top right of Windows screen and ask about ‘degrees’).
There will be instances, when as a writer, you will have to think over the issue of numbers. My watchword is consistency. If you have to adapt, then keep that method throughout the manuscript. Remember Goering’s theory: ‘... if you’re going to tell a lie ... tell a big one ...’
I’d like to express my thanks to Lorraine Mace and Maureen Vincent-Northam, for covering this topic so well in their joint venture; ‘THE WRITER’S abc CHECKLIST’. I’ve learned about writing numbers from various sources, but the aforementioned book is my bible on the matter. Some of the information I’ve explained above is my version of the information given by those two great authors.
If you haven’t got a copy of that book - get one!
Sunday 16th July 2017
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