7

This question sounds similar to this but I am asking something different.

It is said that Stephen Hawking removed all the formulas except one because with each use of a formula the readers of book will reduce by half.

Will such a thing be applicable to writing actual numbers? I have done that in my novel, like saying 'five in the morning' instead of 5 a.m. My problem is I feel it looks good at lot of places in my fiction but again the warning resounds and I have written out numbers at all the places.

For e.g. I think when the reader will scroll through if he or she sees numbers and if sub-consciously he/she hates it. Maybe I am being pedantic and over-estimating, sorry for that but I am starting to write second draft and I just wanted to be sure of use of numbers.

  • Let's confirm that you are talking about fiction, and fiction only (not any kind of scientific article, even for mass audience). – Alexander Jun 26 at 16:45
  • Additionally, are you talking about narrative or about dialogue? While there is a degree of disparity when it comes to style guides and their recommendations for numerals or letters in narrative, there is almost universal agreement that dialogue should only use letters. Note that there is a difference between representing somebody's speech as five or 5 (and most style guides will say to use five with speech), but if somebody says the letters a and m, then that's what should be written (however it's represented)—not morning. – Jason Bassford Jun 26 at 17:43
  • @Alexander yes I am talking about General fiction and fiction only, no other documents. – cool_bodhi Jun 27 at 6:30
  • @JasonBassford I was talking about speech and narrative both. I was not aware that there will be a difference. – cool_bodhi Jun 27 at 6:33
  • @cool_bodhi The main reason, in my mind, to spell out numbers in dialogue is that using a numeral doesn't give the reader any indication how a character is pronouncing the number. Only writing it out will tell you what they are actually saying. (One thousand ten, one thousand and ten, or even ten ten.) If you only use the numeral, it can be ambiguous. How a reader pronounces a numeral may not be how you think a character pronounces it. – Jason Bassford Jun 28 at 18:46
9

I'd say it depends on what those numbers are. Writing "five in the morning" instead of "5am" isn't going to make too much of a difference to readability. In fact, depending on the general tone of your story, that slight bit of extra eloquence can really enhance it.

However, once you get into longer numbers, using the actual numerals really helps with readability. Compare "sixty-five-thousand, five-hundred-and-thirty-six" to its numeric form: 65,536. Even for lesser examples, "The year is twenty-nineteen" isn't as easy for me to parse as "The year is 2019".

The general rule-of-thumb I use is adapted from one I learned in secondary school: if you can write the number as one word ("three", "twelve", "thirty"), then use that word. If it would be a compound word ("twenty-three", "one-hundred-and-eleven"), then use the actual numerals. As Zeiss' answer indicates, though, different people have different tolerances and different limits when it comes to writing out numerals. The best option might be just to experiment until you find a balance you're comfortable with.

6

While you don't need to follow a style guide here (except your publisher's of course), it's helpful to look at them. The AP Style Guide (Associated Press) is a good one because it's for American newspapers. Newspapers work hard to bring in a large range of readers, so they aim most of their articles at a high school (or even Jr. High school) reading level (teenagers and a few pre-teens).

AP Style for numbers:

  • Spell out zero through nine, and use numerals for 10 and above (for both cardinal (one, 19) and ordinal (first, 19th).
  • But use numerals when it's the name of a place or entity (1st Ward).
  • Spell out numbers if they begin a sentence, except for years.
  • Spell out casual use of numbers ("a thousand times").

Some style guides differ and you can make some decisions yourself. For example, Chicago Manual of Style says to spell out numbers under 100, with an alternate rule of doing so only for numbers under 10.

Your publisher will edit as needed. You may also wish to check out some books by the publishers you're likely to submit to and see how they do it.

General rules though are, always use numerals for the following:

  • Dates (some formal documents like contracts and wedding invitations might spell them out, but it's hard to read). You can spell out months. So: June 26, 2019 or 19 Jan 1994.
  • Phone numbers.
  • Street addresses (both the house numbers and the number of the street if the name is a number) So: 345 17th Street.
  • Zip codes/postal codes and anything else from an address.
  • Social security and ID numbers. Credit card numbers. And so forth.
  • Times. 7:26 AM will always be in numerals. But you can say things like: a quarter to three.
  • Math and science formulas and notations.

You want to keep the line between overly formal and overly casual. A good way to do that is to follow the basic existing rules for popular writing.

  • 1
    @JasonBassford I would use the same rules for dialogue as for narration. More or less anyway. I mean, no character should say "Okay, I'll meet you at seven thirty-five at five ninety-two twenty-third street." – Cyn Jun 26 at 18:05
  • 1
    On the contrary, that's exactly how the majority of style guides recommend you format dialogue. (At least the part with the time. If the proper name is a numeral, then that's what could be used. It's not clear if you were making that specific point or not, because you're mixing uses.) Almost universally, they prohibit the use of numerals. (I actually upvoted your answer. But if you had included the information you just provided in this comment, I would have downvoted it, barring clarification.) – Jason Bassford Jun 26 at 18:24
  • 1
    @JasonBassford You should write an answer and include all the information you have here. – Cyn Jun 26 at 19:00
  • 1
    If a street is called "Twenty-Third Street" then of course you use that. And if it's called "23rd Street," you use that. – Cyn Jun 26 at 19:02
  • 1
    @Cyn Even street signs may not be consistent in this regard - in NYC, you'll find signs for both "5 Av" and "Fifth Ave". You won't find any signs for "Forty-second St" though, that one is universally referred to with numerals. – Nuclear Wang Jun 26 at 21:11
3

As a reader, if I find a novel in which the author has flouted standard writing style by not spelling out small, short (in terms of word length) numbers, say, writing "100" instead of "one hundred" or, even better, "a hundred" (given the implied precision of this kind of number) -- I'm likely to close the book right then, because neither the author nor any of their editors knows how writing works, and I'm in for a lot worse before I get to the end.

Standard writing style is to spell out any number less than three words, or any number at all in dialog. Anything less is laziness, and laziness in numbers implies laziness in the rest of the work.

  • Sorry I did not understand...' to spell out any number less than three words'...does it mean write 100 or write a hundred? – cool_bodhi Jun 26 at 14:03
  • You'd write out "one hundred twenty" but not "two thousand, three hundred fourteen" unless in dialog. – Zeiss Ikon Jun 26 at 15:07
  • 2
    @ZeissIkon This is not true at all. In narrative there is a wide disparity between style guides. Almost all say to spell out numbers of ten or less. But, above that, it becomes more subjective. Saying to write one hundred rather than 100 is completely subjective, and it depends on which style guide you use. Many, at least in narrative if not dialogue, find 100 to be quite acceptable. (If you don't like seeing 100, that's a personal opinion, not an objective answer.) – Jason Bassford Jun 26 at 17:47
3

I will provide quotes from The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., and from The Editors Blog. The links to Chicago are behind a paywall and, unfortunately, can only be viewed if you have a subscription.

While these generally hold true across most style guides (in both English in general and literature specifically), other style guides may give different guidance. And note that none of these guides provide absolute rules. The key is to pick a style (or identify which one is expected of you) and to use it consistently.

The guidance for dialogue is often different from the guidance for narrative.

Narrative

Chicago, 9.2:

In nontechnical contexts, Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers (see 9.4).

      Thirty-two children from eleven families were packed into eight vintage Beetles.
      Many people think that seventy is too young to retire.
      The property is held on a ninety-nine-year lease.
      According to a recent appraisal, my house is 103 years old.
      The three new parking lots will provide space for 540 more cars.
      The population of our village now stands at 5,893.

Chicago, 9.3:

Many publications, including those in scientific or journalistic contexts, follow the simple rule of spelling out only single-digit numbers and using numerals for all others (but see 9.7). Most of the exceptions to the general rule (9.2) also apply to this alternative rule. Round multiples of hundreds, thousands, and hundred thousands, however, are typically expressed as numerals when the alternative rule is in force (cf. 9.4).

Chicago, 9.4:

The whole numbers one through one hundred followed by hundred, thousand, or hundred thousand are usually spelled out (except in the sciences or with monetary amounts)—whether used exactly or as approximations.

      Most provincial theaters were designed to accommodate large audiences—from about seven hundred spectators in a small city like Lorient to as many as two thousand in Lyon and Marseille.

      A millennium is a period of one thousand years.
      The population of our city is more than two hundred thousand.
      Some forty-seven thousand persons attended the fair.

            but

      The official attendance at this year’s fair was 47,122.

In a context with many large numbers—especially if round numbers occur alongside numerals that are not round—it may be best to opt for numerals for all such numbers. See also 9.7.

Chicago, 9.7:

Where many numbers occur within a paragraph or a series of paragraphs, maintain consistency in the immediate context. If according to a given rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers in a given category, use them for all in that category. (An exception should be made at the beginning of a sentence.) In the same sentence or paragraph, however, items in one category may be given as numerals and items in another spelled out. According to the general rule, in the first example, the numerals 50, 3, and 4 would normally be spelled out (see 9.2); in the second and third examples, 30,000 and 2,000, respectively, would normally be spelled out (see 9.4). According to the alternative rule, in the fourth and fifth examples, 9 and 1, respectively, would normally be spelled out (see 9.3).

General Rule

      A mixture of buildings—one of 103 stories, five of more than 50, and a dozen of only 3 or 4—has been suggested for the area.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, Chicago’s population exploded, from just under 30,000 in 1850 to nearly 1.7 million by 1900.

      Between 1,950 and 2,000 people attended the concert.

Alternative Rule

      Though most of the test subjects were between 13 and 18, two were 11 and one was 9.

      The movie lasted 1 hour and 36 minutes, a typical length for a romantic comedy.

An exception to either rule may also be made to avoid a thickly clustered group of spelled-out numbers, regardless of category. And in some cases, an exception may be applied not only to a paragraph or passage of text but to a work as a whole. If, for example, a book includes many mentions of ages, all ages might be given as numerals. For numerals in direct discourse, see 13.44.

As can be seen, there are general suggestions, but, as in this last quoted Chicago section, strictly following one or the other rule isn't always a good thing; if doing so would cause confusion in reading and understanding something, then the so-called rules can be bent. Reader comprehension should always trump everything else.

Dialogue

Chicago, 13.44:

In quoting directly from spoken sources (e.g., interviews, speeches, or dialogue from a film or a play), or when writing direct discourse for a drama or a work of fiction, numbers that might otherwise be rendered as numerals can often be spelled out. This practice requires editorial discretion. Years can usually be rendered as numerals, as can trade names that include numerals. And for dialogue that includes more than a few large numbers, it may be more practical to use numerals. See also 9.2, 9.7.

      Jarred’s answer was a mix of rage and humiliation: “For the last time, I do not have seven hundred thirty-seven dollars and eleven cents! I don’t even have a quarter for the parking meter, for that matter.”

      Like most proofreaders, she is a perfectionist. “I’m never happy with a mere ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent.”

            but

      “Do you prefer shopping at 7-Eleven or Circle K?”

      “I didn’t get around to reading Nineteen Eighty-Four until 1985,” he finally admitted.

      “My mobile number is 555-0133.”

"Numbers in Fiction" by Beth Hill at The Editor's Blog echoes Chicago, and even recommends it, in addition to pointing to the Associated Press Stylebook for newspaper and magazine writing. It also gives a lot of detail on numbers that I will not provide all here.

But I will quote its section on using numbers in dialogue (which, it too, says is different from the use of numbers in narrative):

__ Spell out numbers in dialogue. When a character speaks, the reader should hear what he says. And although a traditional rule tells us not to use and with whole numbers that are spelled out, keep your character in mind. Many people add the and in both words and thoughts. Once again, the rules are different for fiction.

“I collect candlesticks. At last count I had more than a hundred and forty.”

“At last count I had more than one forty.”

“She gave her all, 24/7.” Incorrect

“She gave her all, twenty-four seven.” Correct

One exception to this rule is four-digit years. You can spell out years, and you’d definitely want to if your character has an unusual pronunciation of them. But you could use numerals.

“He told me the property passed out of the family in 1942.”

“I thought it was fifty-two?”

A second exception would be for a confusing number or a long series of numbers. Again, if you want readers to hear the character saying the number, spell it out. Even common numbers might be spoken differently. One character might say eleven hundred dollars while another says one thousand one hundred dollars.

If you have to include a full telephone number—because something about the digits is vital—use numerals, even in dialogue. (But if you want to emphasize the way the numbers are spoken, spell out the numbers.)

You’d use numerals rather than words because writing seven or ten words for the numbers would be cumbersome. But most of the time there is no reason to write out a full phone number.

__ Write product and brand names and titles as they are spelled, even if they contain numbers—​7-Eleven, Super 8 hotels, 7UP.


There are many more specific details and discussions in both of these resources, as well as in other style guides. A list of all guidance, especially as it differs from one source to another, would be too long to reasonably reproduce here.

But while Chicago is behind a paywall, "Numbers in Fiction" at The Editors Blog is not, and it can be read in full at its source. (Although, as I've mentioned, it's not a single authority.)

  • thank you for the answer, it clarifies a lot to my about using numerals in dialogue. – cool_bodhi Jun 28 at 19:47

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