number/word rule: 4 or four...

Does anyone know what the “rule” is for words vs. numbers? I’ve seen things like “$12 billion” which is kind of half and half. When is it correct to use a word or number?

“640K ought to be enough for anybody” - Bill Gates

I was taught:

…eight, nine, ten, 11, 12…
…98, 99, one hundred, 101, 102…

…eight million, nine million, 10 million, 11 million…

But, my english teacher was a moron, so…

Personally, I prefer to see digits always. It’s just easier for me to convert digits to numbers rather than words to digits to numbers.

Well, according to all of my previous grammar and high school English teachers, it is proper to spell out any number below 100. So, if you use a number between zero and ninety-nine, you’re going to get a little more typing out of your digits. I don’t have a clue as to negatives though…

“If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious or supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.” Blaise Pascal

If we’re just repeating what we’ve been told, then I’ve heard to spell zero to ten out, and use digits for the rest.

Exceptions are, always be consistent withing a paragraph or so, if you use digits for most, use digits even if it’s under ten. Similarly, if it’s one large number, spell it out if it’s with smaller numbers.

Always use digits for non-integer ammounts that you don’t use a fraction for: two and a third, vs. 4.73

A standard I’ve noticed is that you use digits when reporting a readout, if describing the channel the VCR is set to it’d be 27, not twenty-seven. This has never been explained to be a rule, but it makes sense… be consistent with the device in question.

Most style manuals specify spelling out numbers ten or less and using numerals for numbers of 100 or more. I’m not sure of the numbers in between, but I think they are supposed to be in numerals. Dollar amounts are usually expressed in numerals, so “$2 billion” is correct.

Of course, you’re free to use any system you want as long as it’s consistent – this is a matter of style, not grammar.

One exception: When you begin a sentence with a number, it’s always spelled out. (“Three thousand and four people attended.”)

“What we have here is failure to communicate.” – Strother Martin, anticipating the Internet.

My style book from journalism class had specific instructions on this but do you think I can find it, nooooo, of course not.

I was taught to spell out numbers less than 100 and to use digits for larger numbers, amounts of money and the like.


If I’m only using one or two small numbers, I spell them out. On the other hand, if I have a bunch in a row (e.g. “Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are reserved”), I use numbers. Seems easier to read.

but is it correct to write

I have 4 five dollar bills


I have four 5 dollar bills

or is it something else?

i would probably write the first.
(actually, i don’t have 20 bucks, so technically they’re both wrong)

I am D.B. Cooper

I have five dollar bills. ($5)
I have five-dollar bills. (unknown multiple of $5)
I have four five-dollar bills. ($20)
In formal written language write out anything that doesn’t become too awkward. In general, anything with less than three significant figures.


one hundred
one thousandth
fifty-nine million

I think you get the idea. But, this rule is for standard formal language, which is not the most common format. I’m a technical writer and I deal with this a lot. You must have a feel for your audience. To avoid question, I make the attempt to change all numbers to one significant figue or to three (or more) significatn figures. Very few audiences will complain about writing out four hundred and very few will complain about the shorter 412.3. Numbers with more than seven digits can frequently be converted to exponential format. Again it depends on audience.

If men had wings,
and bore black feathers,
few of them would be clever enough to be crows.

  • Rev. Henry Ward Beecher

I’m not hungover today, I swear, I just am becoming accustomed to automatic spell check. I think all of the typos in the previous post can be figured out by any significant readers. I hope the missing comma and the sentence fragment can be ignored.

This is a matter of style, and the house style at most museums that use professional writers is:

spell out one through ten
numerals for 11 and higher

except, as noted, when beginning a sentence.

“The dawn of a new era is felt and not measured.” Walter Lord

The style-sheet I used when I wrote for Creem Magazine (and is pretty standard for music rags) sais that one should use a word up until twelve, and that anything higher than 13 was best a number.

Yer pal,

What did you do for 13 itself?

I was taught that you spell out everything under ten. After that you use numbers.

Please send two copies of…
I would like 15 copies made.
etc. etc.

That John Denver’s full of shit man!

I wasn’t taught anything about this, but I always figured you reserve digits for things like dates, mathematics etc, and measurements, stuff like that, but use words for amounts, ages etc.

Having said that, what VileOrb says makes a lot of sense, and I’ll agree with him.

Or her.


The Legend Of PigeonMan

  • Shadow of the Pigeon -
    Weirdo of the Night

Also, I think, you should spell numbers out if you want emphasis.
"He spent eighty-five dollars for that pair of jeans!
Not $85. Right?

I only know two things;
I know what I need to know
I know what I want to know
Mangeorge, 2000

Yer pal,

Correct or not, I always prefer a numeric expression as a reader. It is more intuitive, and simply more efficent. Much of these style guides are archaic, and serve no purpose other than glorifying the way things used to be. The fastest clearest method of getting your point across is best, the artisic authors and publishers being the exception.

The style guides merely codify the fastest way to get your point across, since it’s what people are accustomed to seeing. It’s the artsy writers who think they can try other ways. Serious writers stick with the guides unless there’s a real reason to do otherwise.

If you want to be e.e. cummings, you have to write as well as he did.

“What we have here is failure to communicate.” – Strother Martin, anticipating the Internet.