The Numbers Game
by Cherie Tucker
Most people know they should spell out the numbers between 1
and 10, but then why didn’t I just then? There are numerous rules
about numbers, but here are a few that come up most often.
Yes, you should generally use words and not numerals for the numbers
10 and under. However, when the numbers need “to stand out for quick
comprehension,” as it says in The Gregg Reference Manual
(which all writers should own by now), use the numerals. That
definition includes technical numbers, statistics, time, grades, and
all those kinds of things that spelling out would take the reader
longer to register, such as:
My son got a three-point-six-seven final grade in his chemistry
Take the Highway Ninety-nine exit.
I’ll see you at three-thirty.
Another rule applies when you have related numbers in a series that
start below 10 but then go above it. In that instance don’t spell
out the lower numbers and then use numerals for the higher; use
numerals for all of them.
We packed 6 sandwiches, 6 apples, 12 bottles of water, and 3 bags
Finally, if your sentence begins with a number, you must spell that
number out. A sudden appearance of a numeral after the previous
sentence has ended with a period often confuses the reader.
They couldn’t believe they’d won. 6 of their starters had the
This rule is especially important if the sentence needs to start
with a date. You must finagle it so that the first word is not the
1960 was the year the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
An easy fix is putting a little preposition before the date: In
1960 the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Or change
the order: In the 1960 Rose Bowl, the UW Huskies beat Wisconsin.
Easy as 1, 2, 3.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits