Writing

One, Two, Three or 1, 2, 3?

Maybe it’s because of our experiences in school, but oftentimes we think of writing and math/numbers as completely separate. In the real world, we write numbers on a regular basis. They are woven into sentences or we use them when we make lists, purchase orders, and more.

What confuses native English speakers and English language learners alike is when we should spell out numbers as words (such as one, two, and three) and when we should use numerals (such as 1, 2, and 3). Therefore, we are going to go over some guidelines and provide examples.

Before we begin, please note that different style guides (such as APA, MLA, and the Chicago Manual of Style) have slightly different rules about when to spell out numbers using words vs. when to use numerals. If you are writing an academic paper or anything else that calls for strict adherence to a style manual, double check to make sure you are following it correctly.

However, for most everyday “business casual” writing, the following guidelines should work for you.

When to spell out numbers

For the most part, we spell out numbers when the numbers are simple and easy to read within the body of a text. Unless you are required to follow the rules of a particular style guide, you would spell out numbers when…

1. The number is between zero and nine, or it’s a number from zero to nine followed by “hundred”, “thousand”, “million”, etc.

I have three laptops, but I only use one of them.

There are nine girls and seven boys in Mrs. Potter’s preschool class.

Did you hear that Debbie won five million dollars in the lottery?

The meeting hall has about two hundred chairs, but we may need to find more.

2. The number appears at the beginning of a sentence

Sixteen of the residents reported hearing a strange noise coming from the parking lot across the street.

Two thousand dollars is a lot of money for a purse.

Thirty-four companies will be presenting at the job fair. (Note that compound numbers such as thirty-four, sixty-one, and fifty-seven are hyphenated.)

3. The number is part of a common fraction, percentage, or statistic:

One in twenty research participants reported feeling drowsy after taking the medication.

Only sixty percent of registered voters plan to support Mayor Brown.

So far, a two-thirds majority of the workers have voted in favor of a strike. (Note the hyphen. It isn’t a hard-set rule, but in this case, “two-thirds” modifies the noun “majority”, so a hyphen would be appropriate.)

4. The number is spelled out that way in a title:

Some examples include the film Twelve Angry Men, the song “Edge of Seventeen”, and the novel A Tale of Two Cities.

5. The number is an ordinal and is less than ten:

Matteo won third prize in an essay contest.

My son is in the first grade.

6. You are writing a time that isn’t precise.

I usually go to bed at eleven o’clock.

I think that show starts at nine.

When to use numerals

For the most part, we write numerals when spelling out the number would make the text sound too complicated or when it would be difficult to read. An easy, common phrase with a number such as “one million dollars” looks and sounds okay, but “one million, eight hundred thousand, six hundred, and forty-two dollars” is too complicated; it would be much better to write the numeral: $1,800,642.

Again, if you are required to use a particular style manual, check it to make sure you are following the rules. Otherwise, you would use numerals when…

1. The number is larger than 10, especially if it’s long and complicated

There are 51,484 people currently residing in this city.

The reference number for your order is 90092345.

2. You are writing a decimal or any fraction that is somewhat complicated

One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. (Note that the number “One” is spelled out in this sentence.)

Add 2 1/2 cups of sugar.

Pi is approximately 3.14159, but it keeps going and going.

3. You are writing years, dates, or exact times

We must be at the meeting at 3pm.

The movie starts at 8:30.

The last day to sign up for the webinar is 6 April. (For UK English, the date comes before the month.)

The last day to sign up for the webinar is April 6. (In US English, the date comes after the month.)

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

4. You are writing an outline

This article itself shows you an example of this. Note how each of the points is numbered (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).

5. You are writing a list of items that includes a lot of numbers

We need 3 tables, 15 chairs, 45 paint sets, 90 paint brushes, and 15 rolls of paper towels.

If you aren’t sure if your situation calls for spelling out numbers or using numerals, click the blue box below. Our TextRanch editors are available 24/7!

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