Home » Editing » Writing Fluid Fiction: When Should I Spell Out Numbers?

Writing Fluid Fiction: When Should I Spell Out Numbers?

Writing Fluid Fiction: When Should I Spell Out Numbers?Do you ever get to a number in your manuscript, pause, and then wonder: what should I do with it? Should I spell it out? Should I leave it in numerical form? Well, the good news is that there are no “official” rules. At best, there are a bunch of guidelines, and most of the time, it will be up to the editorial practices of the publishing house or up to you to make the final decision. But the bad news is that because there are no official rules, the various requirements and advice can be confusing. So I’m here today to give you a general idea of what to do with those pesky numerical decisions.

What’s the general rule for numbers?

As an editor, I am more or less in agreement with The Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which suggests “for nontechnical contexts” (aka: fiction) that you spell out numbers from zero through one hundred, and any whole numbers from zero to one hundred followed by hundred, thousand, or hundred thousand, million, billion, etc.

There were over three hundred people at the fair.
BUT There were 329 people at the fair.

Alabama has a population of about four million.
BUT Alabama has a population of 4, 356,789. (I just made that up.)

There are forty-three million cats in America.

When else should I spell out numbers?

Numbers should always be spelled out when they start a sentence:

313 cats came running down the street for dinner. – WRONG
Three hundred thirteen cats came running down the street for dinner. – RIGHT

Ordinal numbers should be spelled out when they are numbers between zero and one hundred (same rule as with cardinal numbers).

My friend works on the fifty-eighth floor.

She was 105th out of 330 runners.

Spell out quantities unless they are quantities that we are accustomed to seeing as numerals:

I live three kilometers from the university.
BUT Grab a couple 40-watt bulbs from the store, will you?

Simple fractions should be spelled out. CMoS specifies that “for the sake of readability and to lend an appearance of consistency, they are hyphenated in noun, adjective, and adverb forms” (469).

My cat has eaten two-thirds of his bowl.

Three-fourths of the textbook was filled with someone’s notes.

Spell out money references if they’re sporadically used:

I spent sixty-five dollars on a new dress.

Centuries should be spelled out and lowercased:

We are living in the twenty-first century.

When should I use numerals?

Use numerals for years, unless they begin a sentence (Chicago suggests rewording if that’s the case).

The year 2014 . . .

Also for abbreviated years such as: We’re part of the class of ’07.

And specific dates (when paired with the month or year or both) are typically written as a number: August 25 is his birthday. He was born on August 25, 1993.

Use numbers for exact times: 10:33 a.m.
BUT always spell out a number if it’s paired with o’clock: I wake up every day at six o’clock.

Although I tend to believe personally that they should be written out, CMoS says percents are typically written as numerals unless they start a sentence. But spell out the word percent, at least.

She has a 50 percent chance of survival.

Write numeric decimal fractions as numbers. Large, complex fractions are generally converted to these decimal fractions for easier reading. If the quantity is less than 1.00, then a zero should precede the decimal point: 0.33.

In conclusion . . .

These are just guidelines. And they aren’t even all of the guidelines. But when it comes down to actually making decisions, you have a lot of freedom in your choices. Do what works for you. If you’re self-publishing and you like to spell out all of your numbers, then do it. You’re not necessarily wrong. Just be consistent with your choices throughout the entire novel.

For more information on spelling out numbers, see The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition, Section 9.


How do you treat numbers in your novels? Do you spell them out? Do you write them as ordinal numbers? Has your process differed from any of the suggestions written here? Let me know in the comments!


Like this post? These others may interest you:

Writing Fluid Fiction: How To Use Italics
Writing Fluid Fiction: How To Use Ellipses
Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

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17 thoughts on “Writing Fluid Fiction: When Should I Spell Out Numbers?

  1. I love these posts because, in addition to being useful, they reveal the nuts-and-bolts [hmm, and now I’m wondering about the appropriate use of hyphens :-)], practical nature of creating fluidity in writing. Whatever beautiful flights of prose the muse may provide, s/he’s probably not going to tell you whether to write that number as a numeral or spell it out. But if you don’t come up with consistent answers to these questions, they can really throw off your reader.

    Since I was weaned on the Associated Press Stylebook (okay, that’s a bizarre mental image), I still write as numerals most numbers over nine (10, 27, 46) rather than over 100–or, as the CMoS would have me write it “one hundred.” But as a stylebook and handbook freak, I’m more interested in the contrasts among styles than I am wedded to any particular style. An enjoyable post, as always.

    • I’m really glad you find them helpful! Absolutely — consistency is key. Even if we choose not to follow the style guides, it’s important to find some kind of internal consistency within the text for the reader’s sake.

      I mostly used MLA in undergrad (English major), and I never used the CMoS until I started editing fiction, so I know how you feel. With my current thesis I’m using some concoction that the university here requires. Not sure if it’s an official style, or if it’s just the European version, or if they simply made it up . . . I’m not sure. It may just be the more “scientific” version. I really should look that up. It is interesting to see how they contrast. I have to say I am quite fond of the CMoS, though. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

      • I wonder if it might be American Psychological Associationm or APA. In my education grad courses, that was the style we used, and it differed from both MLA and CMoS. Alphabet soup, anyone? 🙂

        • I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s APA. I did use it once for a history class paper. I’ll investigate. Now I’m curious. Alphabet soup — no kidding!

  2. Writing numbers are only complicated if we let them be, right?

    But they can be a great tool in dialog. Numbers present a chance to differentiate characters. Sometimes we hear people say some amount. 1,247. Many say it one thousand, two hundred, forty seven. Some say it twelve forty seven. Others might say it one thousand, two hundred and forty seven.

    Not that this had much to do with your post though. Ha.

    Silent

    • Right. 🙂

      And you’re absolutely right. That’s an excellent point. The way a person says numbers can easily be used as character development. In dialogue, there’s endless opportunity for experimentation.

      I’m glad you brought it up!

  3. Funny, you seem to know the exact quandaries that we encounter as writers. Every single time I come across a number in my prose, I pause for a nanosecond to contemplate what I should do. In the end, if only for consistency, I usually end up spelling the number out. The only time I actually use a number is when spelling it out causes the reader to stumble over the flow of the story – that’s the last thing we want to have happen, right? 🙂

    Interestingly, I am somewhat uninteresting. Most of the numbers that find their way into my stories are nice, round amounts that fit into the recommendations you make in your article. Perhaps, I need to mix it up a bit, add an odd numerical value into my prose, have something profound occur at 3:56am 😉

    You always find a way to get me thinking about otherwise ordinary things in a new way, thanks Michelle!

    • Hehe, well if it seems that way, it’s mostly because I myself have had the same problems and have had to look up the answers at one point or another. I’m just trying to make it easier for other writers to find those answers!

      Personally, I also tend to spell the numbers out, except in a few special cases. I think it looks better, but that’s just my preference. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with those nice, round amounts. 🙂 They make for easier editing, at least!

      Thanks so much for commenting, Dave. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. Centuries…. Interesting… I thought you can say 21st century…. By the way you don’t use roman numbers for centuries in English right (XXI) .
    Great post!. Thanks for sharing Aquileana 🙂

    • These are just the general guidelines given by the CMoS — so that’s not to say that “21st century” would be wrong if you used it that way. As long as you’re consistent throughout the text, the reader probably wouldn’t even notice. 🙂 And correct, roman numerals are not commonly used for centuries in English.

  6. I usually spell them out. But if it goes into hundreds, thousands, millions, I begin to worry that they are but junk words. Say, 4,857 is one word! But to be spelt out!! As you say, quantities like 100-Watt bulb, 2kg packet of sugar, etc–those ones I never spell out.
    Thanks for the great post.

    • I like spelling them out, too. But I similarly worry about the larger numbers (as you pointed out). Those I tend to keep in number form simply because otherwise they’d be difficult to read. Well, not difficult, but distracting maybe? Thanks for sharing your process. It’s interesting to see how other people approach the issue! Glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. I ran into two quandaries in the project I’m working on: highway route numbers and motel room numbers. I did them both ways, set it aside and came back to see which way flowed the best (since I didn’t find anything definitive on either) and came to the conclusion that the routes were best in numeric form: I-75, SR326, etc., and the motel room was better spelled out.

    If I can’t find an absolute custom, I go with the least distracting, what the eye/brain is most used to seeing and registers most smoothly.

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