Is It 2 or Two? Generally Accepted Style for Numerals

Photo of a section of road with the number "2" painted in yellow.
It’s common to spell out the numbers one through nine. (Photo: Pixabay)

Sooner or later you’ll need to express numbers in your writing. So, should they be written out in words or as figures?

Does it surprise you that the answer is: “It depends…”?

Good luck finding standard rules for expressing numbers and numerals across all types of writing. To complicate matters further, the rules change depending on what part of the planet you call home.

Numerical diversity notwithstanding, there are some rules applicable to general writing that most copy editors in the United States agree should be followed.

  • Spell out whole numbers smaller than 10. The Associated Press, New York Times, and APA style guides agree on this point. However, the Chicago and MLA style guides disagree. (I won’t complicate things by pointing out all the differences; suffice it to say that spelling out one through nine is the most common style.)
  • Don’t begin a sentence with a numeral. The easiest way to stay congruent with this rule is to rewrite a sentence. Consider changing “Four hundred twenty-five people will participate in the medical study” to “The medical study has 425 participants.”
  • Use commas as a thousands separator. This makes large numbers easier to read—both in print and on screen. “The stadium has 37,000 seats.”
  • Spell out estimated or rounded large numbers. “Nearly 800 million people have a Facebook account” is easier to read than “Nearly 800,000,000 people have a Facebook account.”
  • Spell ordinal numbers smaller than “ninth” if you are indicating a sequence in time or location. “It wasn’t until the 11th hour that we finally had our third bid on the house.”
  • Use figures for weight and dimensions, and spell out the unit of measurement. Include hyphens when the measurement becomes a compound modifier. “She is 5 feet tall.” “The dog weighs 3 pounds, 3 ounces.” “The 5-foot-8-inch athlete was not tall enough to compete in that category.”
  • Use numerals for the following:
    • Ages
    • Days of the month
    • Degrees of temperature
    • House numerals
    • Percentages
    • Proportions
    • Scores
    • Serial numbers
    • Speeds
    • Sums of money
    • Time of day
    • Years

Just Be Consistent

All style guides have subtle and not-so-subtle differences in how they approach numerals. The Super Copy Editors team can adapt to any style a client chooses, or we can work with the client to create a new style that makes sense for a specific project.

The important thing is to stay consistent. If your style is slapdash, you’ll not only look sloppy but you’ll also risk confusing your readers.

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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