Born late in the year, Adam was the only kid in his small 4th grade class that had already turned 11. Every morning he got up at exactly 4:56, the latest he could rouse in the morning with sequential numbers and still meet Bus 9 on time.


Born late in the year, Adam was the only kid in his small fourth grade class that had already turned eleven. Every morning he got up at exactly four fifty-six, the latest he could rouse in the morning with sequential numbers and still meet Bus Nine on time.

Is there a hard rule in general fiction when to use numbers and when to spell them out?

  • Created the tag tag:numerals for this one, I recall other questions that should fit it. – Neil Fein Apr 3 '16 at 0:52

Hard rule? No. Style guide? Yes.

As an aspiring author, you absolutely need to pick a style guide and use it or these problems will keep picking at you. I like The Chicago Manual of Style.

As such: Born late in the year, Adam was the only kid in his small, fourth-grade class that had already turned eleven. Every morning, he got up at exactly 4:56 a.m., the latest he could arise in the morning with sequential numbers and still meet Bus No. 9 on time.

There are a lot! of individual rules involved here, and some variation with the time of day and the bus number. It would also potentially change from narrative to dialogue.

In the above examples (in addition to the punctuation issues):

  1. Numbers are spelled out from one to one hundred, as well as most fractions. This is highly variable depending on the style guide. What you don't want to do is mix things like three-and-3/4. Numbers without ones or tens are often spelled out. Two hundred, one million, thirteen thousand, for instance.

  2. Times are written with arabic numerals (ordinals) if they contain minutes. You may use AM, PM, a.m., p.m. but Chicago cautions against A.M., P.M., am, pm (but they are not incorrect). Whole hours are often written out Three o'clock in the morning.

  3. An effort should be made to use the modern convention of what a bystander or person knowledgeable in the industry would see and recognize. A Boeing 747, Channel 5 news at 9, Bus No. 9 or Bus #9 seems better to me than bus number nine.

  4. However, in dialogue, the writer may spell out everything. Just be consistent. Brand names, such as Boeing 747 should maintain ordinals even in dialogue, but not if the brand is written out: Coke Zero.

  5. There will be times to break this pattern. It is best not to mix ordinals with roman text in the same sentence or short paragraph. In this case, ordinals are preferred. His 15-year-old dog is 105 in human years.

  • This is a very thorough answer with very good examples. Upvote. – raddevus Apr 4 '16 at 19:12

I took a class with Ellen Meister, who said that it doesn't really matter until your book becomes published, that the publishers will decide how to write the numbers according to their rules.

  • Can you cite your source? This is my favorite answer so far. ;) – kmunky Apr 3 '16 at 16:22
  • Author Ellen Meister. I took a class with her and she said that. – Deau X. Machinus Apr 4 '16 at 16:17
  • So if this was the best answer so far, why wasn't it ultimately chosen as the answer? Just curious. – raddevus Apr 4 '16 at 19:11
  • Objectively, @Stu W provided what I think is the 'best' answer. This is my 'favorite' answer, as it requires less work from me. +1 – kmunky Apr 4 '16 at 19:56

The best answer to this is based upon how people read and how brains work in general.

Example of How Brainz Work

If u cn rd ths ur 2 cloz

Do Everything Possible To Keep Readers Reading

Sure, you can read that, but for some ppl* it will take longer. Even if it is a negligible amount of time measured you don't want it to take longer when people are reading your fiction. If it takes them too long they will quit.

*A little hidden joke in this explanation. :) Also, did you notice how the asterisk made you slow your reading for even a millisecond? That's the experience that writing number symbols can have on readers.

Writing Reading Conventions, Not Rules

Think about the reader, not about your writing.

The Answer

The answer that you've been waiting for is: Write out the number as a word. Why?

Because when a brain is reading words, it (generally) slows the brain down to switch modes and turn number symbols into words which are then added to the understanding of the sentence.

Jerry went fishing on Lake Timonga every 32 minutes he pulled in 3 fish.

Jerry went fishing on Lake Timonga every thirty-two minutes he pulled in three fish.

Last Sentence is "Easier" (Faster)

I am a very fast reader, but if I read a sentence like the first I often stop for just a moment and read the first number as three two, then my eyes scan over it and re-read it as thirty-two. With the words, my eyes just keep flying over the sentence. Something to consider.

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