When To Spell Out A Number In An Essay

When to Spell Out Numbers

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Pam points out a significant difference between technical writing and non-technical writing:

On your 10 rules for numbers, rule #2 doesn’t tell the whole story, especially for technical writers. Any numbers used with measurements (time, distance) must be expressed as figures in technical writing (8 months, 6-inch nails, 9 p.m.)

With any kind of writing, context determines usage, and a style guide appropriate to the genre must be the writer’s final authority.

Writing online, David A. McMurrey, author of Processes in Technical Writing (Macmillan 1988), has this to say about the use of numerals in technical writing:

The main hurdle to overcome is to learn that in technical contexts, we use numerals in text, even ones below 10. In other words, we break the rules that are taught in regular writing courses and that are used in normal publishing and copyediting practice. That’s because in the technical and scientific context, we are vitally interested in numbers, statistical data, even if it’s a 2 or 5 or—yes—even a 0.

He acknowledges the difficulty in defining the rules, and distinguishes between “important” and “unimportant” numbers.

You should use numerals, not words, when the number is a key value, an exact measurement value, or both. For example, in the sentence “Our computer backup system uses 4 mm tape” the numeral is in order.

He gives these examples in which the word is preferable to the numeral:

There are four key elements that define a desktop publishing system.

There are six data types in the C programming language.”

Like the general writer, the technical writer is advised against beginning a sentence with a numeral:

write the number out or, better yet, rephrase the sentence so that it doesn’t begin the sentence.

McMurrey concludes his rules about the writing of numerals with a reminder of the importance of context:

Apply these rules in specifically technical, scientific contexts only. Be sensitive to what the standard practices are in the context in which you are writing.

Recommendations to spell or not to spell a number differ from style book to style book. Many, for example, advise spelling numbers 1-10 and using numerals for eleven and up. I don’t follow that rule because I don’t like the way 11 looks in a sentence.

Here’s theChicago Manual of Style’s General Rule about the use of numerals:

In nontechnical contexts, the following are spelled out: whole numbers from one through one hundred, round numbers, and any number beginning a sentence. For other numbers, numerals are used.

The CMOS then goes on to treat the numerous exceptions and special cases at length.

Bottom line: When it comes to writing numbers as numerals or as words, consider context, and equip yourself with an appropriate style book for the work at hand.

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6 Responses to “When to Spell Out Numbers”

  • stumped

    what about this:
    I had 32 precious baby dolls strewn throughout my room, and I knew each dolly’s name by heart.

    thirty-two or 32??

  • Connie

    So numbers are important, grammar is important; but what about the almighty SEO? Who knows if character numbers or text numbers are picked up as more important?

  • anup

    time (10:20)
    How to read it or while answering
    1. Twenty past ten or
    2. ten twenty

  • Rose

    I have one question. When referring to a 3ft, 2 by 4, is it spelled out in words or in numbers in the writing of a story?

  • rod

    Ordinal numbers should be spelled out unless you’re dating a letter

  • Dan

    Useful post. For non-technical writing, my cut-off is twelve. The words eleven and twelve are too beautiful to banish from our prose.


Writing Numbers


This section discusses numbers, how to write them correctly, and when to use numerical expressions instead.

Contributors: Chris Berry
Last Edited: 2018-02-07 03:40:58

Although usage varies, most people spell out numbers that can be expressed in one or two words and use figures for numbers that are three or more words long. Note: If you are using a specific citation style, such as MLA or APA, consult the style manual for specific formatting instructions.


over two pounds

six million dollars

after thirty-one years

eighty-three people


after 126 days

only $31.50

6,381 bushels

4.78 liters

Here are some examples of specific situations:

Days and Years

December 12, 1965 or 12 December 1965

A.D. 1066

in 1900

in 1971-72 or in 1971-1972

the eighties, the twentieth century

the 1980's or the 1980s

Time of Day

8:00 A.M. (or) a.m. (or) eight o'clock in the morning

4:30 P.M. (or) p.m. (or) half-past four in the afternoon


16 Tenth Street

350 West 114 Street

Identification Numbers

Room 8

Channel 18

Interstate 65

Henry VIII

Page and Division of Books and Plays

page 30

chapter 6

in act 3, scene 2 (or) in Act III, Scene ii

Decimals and Percentages

a 2.7 average

13.25 percent (in nonscientific contexts)

25% (in scientific contexts)

.037 metric ton

Large Round Numbers

four billion dollars (or) $4 billion

16,500,000 (or) 16.5 million

Notes on Usage

Repeat numbers in commercial writing.

The bill will not exceed one hundred (100) dollars.

Use numerals in legal writing.

The cost of damage is $1,365.42.

Numbers in series and statistics should be consistent.

two apples, six oranges, and three bananas

NOT: two apples, 6 oranges, and 3 bananas

115 feet by 90 feet (or) 115' x 90'

scores of 25-6 (or) scores of 25 to 6

The vote was 9 in favor and 5 opposed

Write out numbers beginning sentences.

Six percent of the group failed.

NOT: 6% of the group failed.

Use a combination of figures and words for numbers when such a combination will keep your writing clear.

Unclear: The club celebrated the birthdays of 6 90-year-olds who were born in the city. (may cause the reader to read '690' as one number.)

Clearer: The club celebrated the birthdays of six 90-year-olds who were born in the city.

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