Numbers

There are two ways to write numbers:

  • numerals, like 200
  • words, like two hundred

But how do you know when to use a numeral and when to use a number?

First, remember that you should always write out numbers of one or two words, like fifty or nine thousand. Then, you just tattoo the following list on your legs and wear long pants for the rest of your life.

Okay, okay, that's a little extreme. How about you just study this list closely instead?

Use numerals for:

  • numbers that would be written out with three words or more
  • days and years
  • exact times
  • exact amounts of money
  • addresses
  • scores and statistics
  • percentages, fractions, and decimals
  • pages, chapters, and volumes
  • acts and lines from plays

Got it? Good.

One more thing: when two numbers appear right next to one another in a sentence, write one as a word and the other as a numeral so they're easier to read. That's just good manners, Shmooper.

Examples

On June 14, 1998, the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz 87–86 to clinch their sixth NBA title in eight years.

In this sentence, June 14, 1998 is written with numerals since it's a day and a year. 87–86 gets the numeral treatment, too, since it's a score. Finally, it's best to write out eight since it's a one-word number. It's also probably best to pretend Michael Jordan's 2001 "comeback" with the Washington Wizards never happened.

Angelo asked his friends, "If I want to give a 20 percent tip on our $54.23 bill for lunch, how much money would that be?"

We didn't know there'd be math on here! This is a grammar lesson! Here, we use the numerals 20 and 54.23 because we're talking about a percentage and an exact amount of money. (And Angelo should leave roughly eleven dollars. Notice that we wrote that one out since it's not an exact amount.)

A group of five hundred protestors gathered in front of the garbage incinerator at 388 Knox Avenue.

In this example of the First Amendment, five hundred is written out since it's only two words. Using the numeral 388 is correct since it's an address.

Common mistakes

The short answer? Try to avoid it. Most sentences can be reworked so that they don't start with a numeral.

Here's the longer answer: if you can't rewrite the sentence—if there is literally no other way out—then write out the number and move on unless it's a year, a proper name, or a really long number that would make your reader squirm.

Using numerals at the start of a sentence isn't preferable, but it is acceptable. Know your audience, and use your best judgment. If your brain feels like it's going to burst when trying to read a number at the start of a sentence, just imagine how your reader's pretty little head will feel.

Examples

One hundred and forty-nine thousand people signed my petition for ABC to put Happy Endings back on television.

327,000 people bought Kanye West's latest album in its first week of release.

Happy Endings may have been an awesome show, but that first sentence definitely isn't. The written-out number is annoying, so you should go with a numeral. That's what's happening in the second sentence. Using the numeral 327,000 is much easier on the eyes… and the brain.