The Naked Writer: Writing Numbers

Unless we’re using Roman numerals—which are still in fashion here and there—we’re using Arabic numerals or writing the numbers out. That sounds simple. Not so. But I don’t intend to go in total depth here. (Numbers are quite a subject, really.) I’ll give you the bare bones–and don’t forget that the style guides update yearly.

Having been a business journalist for many years, I like to use The Associated Press Stylebook.

AP says, as a general rule, to spell out numbers under 10 and then use the numeral. But, AP adds, never start a sentence with a number unless the number specifies a year.

*Bob and his wife took nine children to the park on Wednesday and 11 children to the park on Friday.
*Eleven children proved to be a challenge for the two.
*1914 was the year in which this building gained a certificate of occupancy.

When writing about whatever might be first through ninth, we spell the designations. Then above ninth, we again switch to the numerals.

*Bob sat in the eighth row then moved to the 10th row.

However, in some specific cases we apply the numerals early on.

*Judge Bob Smith sat on the 9th Circuit.

Money goes by numerals with symbols unless cents .

*Bob threw $3 into the pot.
*Bob later threw 30 cents into the pot.
*Bob won $2 million in the Friday lottery.

To return to the question of Roman numerals, they’re used with people who are numbered, such as Elizabeth II or numbered events, such as World War I.

Complicated enough? Well here comes CMOS: The Chicago Manual of Style’s decision regarding writing numbers. As I noted in the last blog piece, CMOS is used for academic writing as well as books (mostly nonfiction).

CMOS says for us to spell out whole numbers but use numerals for more complex numbers.

*I was introduced to one hundred boys at the school, although they were noisy enough to sound like three hundred thousand boys. The principal told us 337 boys had graduated in the first several years the school had been open.

Strangely, CMOS offers an alternative. You can use the AP style, and spell numbers through nine and then go with numerals after that. CMOS though won’t let you use a number for the year when you open a sentence.

*Nineteen fourteen was the year this building opened for occupancy.

Numbers, obviously, are complex, and often we may find ourselves fudging a bit. Or at least I do. (Is that so bad?) Because numbers are one hard nut to crack, that’s why I wanted to pin down some of the rules myself. At some point in the future, I’ll go into dates and times if I can work up the nerve.

As I said in my last blog piece on style guides, most important is that you’re consistent. If you have a contract with a publisher, however—whether for an article or a book—ask for their style guide.

The Naked Writer by G. Miki Hayden—me—is not a style guide at all, but a punctuation and grammar resource with style “advice” for all sorts of writers. You should have this. Get your Kindle copy on Amazon

And take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. I pinky promise not to fuss about the way you write your numbers. Coming up soon at :

5/25/2017 – 07/06/2017 Writing the Mystery. I won a short story Edgar and was on the board of Mystery Writers of America for several years. I have an award-winning book in print titled Writing the Mystery.

6/08/2017 – 08/31/2017 12 Weeks to a First Draft. This is a great class for the focused person writing a novel. I can help with the ground-level writing as well as the overall scheme of the story, and then provide insights into what’s happening with the markets these days.

06/29/2017 – 08/10/2017 Writing the Paranormal Novel. Paranormal covers a lot of ground. My Question Woman & Howling Sky (at Amazon) falls into several categories, including paranormal.

The Naked Writer: Writing Numbers

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