RULES OF USING NUMERALS IN TEXT: 21 vs. Twenty-one

by Robin Woods at RobinWoodsFiction.com

When writing numbers, it is sometimes tricky to figure out if you need to write 23 or twenty-three. I have compiled some rules for you that apply to almost all of the styles.

The General Rules

  1. Be consistent with your style! This is the most important rule!
    Whether you write 1800’s or 1800s, pick one and stick with it. See the rules for the style guide in which you are following.
  2. Never begin a sentence with a numeral, spell it out.
    8 criminals escaped during the prison transfer. Incorrect.
    Eight criminals escaped during the prison transfer. Correct.
    Though, it is often better to rephrase the sentence and not begin with a number.
  3. Spell out centuries and decades (unless you use the entire year).
    Prohibition during the 20’s strengthened organized crime. Incorrect.
    The flappers of the Twenties were scandalous! Correct.
    The eighteenth century was a time of change. Correct.
  4. Spell out small numbers.
    One monkey fell off the bed, leaving six uninjured monkeys. Correct.
  5. Hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
    Twenty-two and fifty-one
  6. Don’t mix numeral styles in a sentence. (Yes, this may mean breaking another rule, but it is better to have that consistency thing we talked about earlier).
    I walk one mile a day 14 times a month. Incorrect.
    I walk one mile a day fourteen times a month. Correct.
  7. If you have numbers next to one another, spell one out for clarity.
    The talent show had 8 8-year-olds perform during the assembly. Incorrect.
    The talent show had 8 eight-year-olds perform during the assembly. Correct.
  8. Use numerals for figures.
    1.5 gallons or 9.2 liters
    48 days
    124 canisters
  9. Numbers zero through nine should be spelled out. The numeral for 10 and above may be substituted.

Samples using the above rules

  • The plant grew five inches in a week.
  • The company had to pay five million dollars in the settlement.
  • The family lives at 808 Eight Street in a charming white house.
  • The actress earned eight million dollars for her sixth film.
  • Twenty-eight days after the accident, her cast was removed.
  • John J. Loud patented ballpoint pen on October 30, 1888. -OR- John J. Loud patented ballpoint pen on 30 October 1888.
  • John J. Loud patented ballpoint pen on Oct. 30, 1888. (You may abbreviate the names of months that are less than four letters)

The Muses would add one more rule for fiction writers. In dialogue, spell out the numbers whenever possible, because they represent the spoken word (an exception to this rule would be the example above: “8 eight-year-olds”). 

Many thanks to Robin Woods for this blog post! To show your appreciation, go over to https://robinwoodsfiction.com/for-writers/ and follow her blog!

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