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Numbers and numerals: hints and tips

  • August 1, 2011
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Just as English slips into Math through Algebra, Math sneaks into English through numerals. Various guidelines can aid writers in using them.

What is a Numeral?
A numeral is a symbol of a number. “20”, “six”, and “XII” are the numerals of the numbers they represent. You cannot actually see a 2, but any of the words/symbols that describe the number 2 are called numerals.

Arabic numerals are those we use every day, such as 13 and 6. Roman numerals are seen less frequently and consist of the letters I, V, C, L, X, D, and M in varied combinations. They are often used in titles and names, like “Bertram Moore III” and “Superbowl XLV”.

For fun, try the “Nova Roma” converter, which takes Arabic numerals and changes them into Roman numerals.

Seven Rules

Not everyone agrees on the rules concerning numerals; writers use this leeway to occasionally skirt the rules if something they have written seems awkward.

Numbers and Numerals

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1) Write the Little Ones Out
The only rule that everyone agrees on: any number lower than 10 should be written out.
“I gathered five eggs this morning.”
“You’d think 35 chickens would lay more, but my chickens are lazy.”

2) Don’t Start a Sentence with Numeral Symbols
Bad: “50 people ordered cheeseburgers.”
Good: “Fifty people ordered cheeseburgers.”

3) The Comma is Your Friend
In some technical writing, it might be acceptable to leave them out, but in formal writing, a lack of commas would make a reader’s eyes cross. They are used as a separator at every thousandth.

Bad: “The company earned $32678093 last year.”
Good: “The company earned $32,678,093 last year.”

Numbers Beside Each Other
Mixing written numerals with symbols can be handy to avoid confusion.

Awkward: “25 15-foot poles were installed.”

Better: “Twenty-five 15-foot poles were installed.”
Also better: “25 fifteen-foot poles were installed.”

4) Shorten the Long Ones, Write Out the Short Ones
One or two syllable numerals can be written out, though do not mix the two within the same sentence.

“People are waiting at the twenty and thirty mile markers.”
“At the 75 marker, there’s an alligator.”

5) Write out Periods of Time
To keep formal writing from reminding readers of a music video, write out decades and centuries as opposed to “1980s” or “early 1700s”. If it must be shortened, use an apostrophe.

“My cousin is stuck in the sixties; look at her hair.”
“Truman and Eisenhower were presidents in the ’50s.”

6) Percentages
In formal writing, avoid the %; write it out.

“Our family budget allows twenty percent of our income to go to food.”

7) Estimations/Rounding
Numbers over a million and estimations are written as numerals.

“2 million television viewers saw my sister’s ugly shoes.”

Cardinals/Ordinals/Nominals
Cardinal numbers in English show a quantity.
“Three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”
“I ate fifty chocolate chip cookies.”

Ordinals show a position or rank.
“We were 3rd in line.”
“My stomach lurched a second time; I shouldn’t have eaten that many cookies in the first place.”

Nominals are used for identification.
“The library’s phone number is 555-987-2341.”
“Phil’s racehorse is number twelve.”
“97223 is an Oregon zip code.”

Numbers and numerals in English are not as scary as they might seem, and they can even be fun. Can you write your birthday in Roman numerals?

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