Is there a secret rule? Should you always do it? Should you never do it?
Sort of. No. And no. The key to using numbers in your text is CONSISTENCY.
However, there are some rules you can follow. Penguin Working Words says that numbers from one to ninety-nine* should be written in full if they’re being used in descriptive and narrative text. Basically, any number that requires one or two words should be written out as a word. Let’s see it in action.
Xander’s voice blundered into the uncomfortable silence. “And guess who ate 27 eggs at lunch today?”vs.
Xander’s voice blundered into the uncomfortable silence. “And guess who ate twenty-seven eggs at lunch today?”
When we read, we’re subconsciously preparing ourselves to see words, which means that the figures of a number stand out a little too much. By replacing the figures with words, we smooth the flow of the sentence and allow it to continue without interruption.
This is a good reason for making sure you always write out a number at the beginning of sentence.
37 porcupines were waiting for Vimes as he entered his office.vs.
Thirty-seven porcupines were waiting for Vimes as he entered his office.
Again, the number stands out a little too much, with the added effect of looking a little like a street address for a moment or two.
Speaking of addresses – that’s one situation in which you should always use figures for your numbers. Here’s a convenient list of some more situations that generally require numbers to be written as figures:
- Addresses, eg. Buffy felt as though she'd lived at 1630 Revello Drive forever; in reality, she'd just moved in last weekend.
- Dates and years, eg. 1981, 22nd of January
- Decimals, percentages and fractions, eg. CMOT Dibbler had told Sergeant Colon that 27.6 percent of people would believe anything you told them, provided you were wearing the right hat.
- Scores, eg. The final score, according to Nobby, was 2 to 4, plus an unspecified number of coconuts.
- Finances/currency, eg. Anya interrupted with an out-of-place air of urgency. "Giles, the incredibly ugly girl and her financially insecure boyfriend want to give me 75 dollars for this. Tell me I should go back and laugh at them."
- Time, eg. Buffy glanced at the clock in the deserted cafeteria: 3:30pm. Roughly about the time Snyder should be realising that a very important guest had failed to arrive at detention this afternoon.
- Exact measurements, followed by symbols or abbreviations, eg. The speed sign said 40mph; the speedo read 70mph. Spike didn’t seem to give a damn.
So there are rules and guidelines, but the most important thing to remember is still consistency. If you choose to write all of your numbers out as figures, then make sure you apply that rule to every number. The same situation applies should you decide to write all your numbers as words. Your main aim is to avoid something such as this:
There were 13 dogs and two werewolves in the clearing... and it would have been a slight understatement to say they were all at sixes and 7s.
* In a few cases, this is lowered to numbers from one to ten. Check your style guide to see which is preferred for academic writing.
For complete lists or more information, have a look at these websites: