Q&A: 2, 4 ,6, 8! What’s the right way to write numbers?

They sit right there above the letters on the keyboard, but how do we go with using them? This week we examine numbers…

Q: Hi there Australian Writers' Centre, can I ask a question?
A: Well, that capital Q in front of everything you say suggests that you can. What’s on your mind this week?

Q: Well, I was reading a sports article last week which had a sentence stating that “between the ninth and 14th holes, the golfer shot only birdies.” Is this correct?
A: Well we’d have to check their signed scorecard to be perfectly sure. (And even then, we’ve been known to cheat on our score at mini golf when we can’t get past that windmill …)

Q: No, I mean is it correct to use numbers as both words and numerals in the same sentence? I thought it looked a bit odd.
A: Ah, yeah good question. It’s mostly about style though.

Q: Well I think it said he had one of those hideous jumpers on and long socks with white shoes. Oh and a ridiculous hat.
A: No, not the golfer’s style. Ridiculousness is a given there. We’re talking about style guides for various publications or organisations. You need to check how each treats numbers, as there are a number of ways to tackle it. See what we–

Q: Yes I see what you did there. Okay, fine about style guides. But surely there are some universal rules?
A: A few, sort of. Numbers one to nine are generally written as words. And after that it’s as numerals – 10, 11, 12 etc. Thirteen would have been 13 just now, except that it was at the start of a sentence and the typical rule is that numbers look better as words when kicking off sentences.

Q: But what about my golf example?
A: Now, maybe it’s their style rules, but we think the writer took the word/numeral threshold too literally. If you have two numbers in a sentence that relate to the same thing, they really should match each other. So it would read better as “…between the 9th and 14th holes…” with it favouring the numeral format. We usually use numerals for precise measures such as percentages, time, dates, years, units etc, and we use words for vague non-specific descriptions like hundreds, thousands or millions etc. However, in your example, if it had just referred singularly to “the ninth hole” – it would be back to word format again.

Q: Okay, so you’re saying that as soon as a number that’s 10 or higher enters a sentence, all other numbers should change to numeral format, yes?
A: Nope. You miss-hit that shot I’m afraid. It’s only things that relate to each other on the ‘same scale’ – like golf holes in this case. So if it had been a good day for many golfers, we’d be looking at “between the 9th and 14th holes, the five golfers shot only birdies.” ‘Five’ didn’t become ‘5’ as it is counting golfers, not holes.

Q: Ah okay. So back on that numbers starting sentences thing. Is that a sure thing?
A: This is English; it’s about as sure as Beyoncé running for President. Besides, in today’s content-hungry world of Buzzfeed-type sites, it’s commonplace to see headlines that begin with numerals.

Q: Oh, you mean like “37 Celebrities You Won’t Believe Used to be Janitors” or “16 Cute Kittens You Simply Must Click On Right Now”?
A: That’s exactly what we mean.

Q: What about really big numbers – like if I wrote about that song from the musical Rent. “Five hundred and twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes are in a typical year.” Seems clunky.
A: Yes, only a computer wizard from MIT would like that sentence. We’d generally recommend shuffling things about so you don’t have the number as the first cab off the sentence rank. For example, “A typical year has 525,600 minutes.” But again, style guides can overrule this – same for years. Two thousand and fourteen may seem okay if the style suggests it’s okay, just like you’ll find 90%, 90 percent and even ninety per cent in equal doses. It’s like a buffet restaurant – nothing is particularly offensive to look at, all the options have been touched plenty of times, yet none are likely to kill you.

Q: Got it. So what about my novel. Are there dialogue rules?
A: This one is thankfully pretty universal. All numbers are usually written as words. So your book might say “Tiger hasn’t won here in twenty-five years,” said Rory.

Q: Right, so I noticed you put a hyphen in ‘twenty-five'. Is that normal?
A: Definitely – if you're writing out numbers from 21 to 99, they'll all have a hyphen.

Q: OK, what about when you have, say, “a group of 12 10-year-olds”. Two numbers next to each other looks stupid. Would you convert one of them to words?
A: Hole in one! That’s exactly what you’d do.

Q: And what can you tell me about “my 11-year-old nephew being allowed to enter into a two-year iPhone 6 contract”?
A: Well, first, your sister probably told him it’s just for emergencies, but we all know he’s texting and Minecrafting up a storm. As for the numbers, ages do tend to follow the same one-to-nine words/10-and-over numerals rules, with the added bonus of hyphens when ‘year’ is singular – 11-year-old or seven-year-old. (When it’s ‘years’ after the subject, say goodbye to the hyphens. “My nephew is 11 years old.”) That’s pretty much ‘par for the course'. See what we—

Q: Yes I see what you did there, another golf reference. And the rest of the example?
iPhone 6 is a brand name, so you don’t mess with that. That’s like calling it Toy Story Three. (But don’t get us started on “SE7EN”…) The phone company has a two-year contract, but a bank may call it a 3-year fixed term loan – it can often come down to style and consistency again. If you get no other clues, stick to the “words for nine and under” rule.

Q: Gee, this is starting to resemble a free-for all. My head hurts.
A: Yeah, apart from a few general-ish rules, numbers are all over the place. Actually, it’s about as frustrating as a round of golf, and has just as many holes, flags and hazards. But if you tee up each example consistently, you’ll go a fair way to avoiding the rough. (See what we did there?)

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