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Numbers: Spell Out or Use Numerals? (Number Style 101)

Numbers take up their own planet in the style universe, so let’s explore it one mountain at a time. This post covers the basic rules and the basic exceptions. (They’re like siblings, I tell ya.) After we get the fundamentals out of the way, we can move on to fun subcategories, such as money and measurements!

Here’s a little number warm-up to get your brains up and running.

  • Cardinal numbers: one, 7, forty-one, one hundred nine, 852, three thousand sixty-one
  • Ordinal numbers: 1st, seventh, 41st, 109th, eight hundred fifty-second, 3,061st
  • Arabic numerals: 1, 7, 41, 109, 852, 3,061
  • Roman numerals: I, VII, XLI, CIX, DCCCLII, MMMLXI

The best way to commit these distinctions to your long-term memory is to type them out and make up a string of examples for each. (Trust me.)

The best way to commit these distinctions to your long-term memory is to type them out and make up a string of examples for each. (Trust me.)

The Associated Press Stylebook prefers the ambiguous word figure to refer to number symbols (e.g., 1, 2, 3), choosing to broadly define numeral as, among other things, “[a] word or group of words” (p. 201). I’m sticking to the definition in AP’s dictionary of choice, Webster’s New World College Dictionary—“a figure, letter, or a group of any of these, expressing a number.” The Chicago Manual of Style differentiates numerals from words as well.

Basic Number Rules (for Nontechnical Copy)

AP (p. 203)

  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) nine (e.g., zero, one, 10, 96, 104).
  • Spell out casual expressions: A picture is worth a thousand words, but a really good one is worth a thousand dollars.

Chicago (9.2-4, 9.8)

  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) one hundred (e.g., zero, one, ten, ninety-six, 104).
  • Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) one hundred when followed by hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and so on (e.g., eight hundred, 12,908, three hundred thousand, twenty-seven trillion).
  • Alternative rule: Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) nine, and use numerals for the rest. That’s right, you have a choice. Control yourselves or we will make you spell out phone numbers in the 17th edition.

Control yourselves or we will make you spell out phone numbers in the 17th edition.

Numbers Beginning a Sentence

AP (p. 202)

  • Spell out numbers that begin a sentence unless it begins with a year (e.g., Twelve drummers, The 10 lords a-leaping, 2011’s quota for off-season holiday references has been filled).

Chicago (9.5)

  • Always spell out numbers that begin a sentence, or reword to avoid unwieldiness. Well, if you think that Nineteen ninety-one looks more awesome than The year 1991, then go right ahead. [Awkward silence as double bind takes effect]

There is no and when you spell out whole numbers (e.g., one hundred one Dalmatians, not one hundred and one Dalmatians).

Ordinals

AP (p. 202)

  • Spell out ordinal numbers up to (and including) ninth when indicating sequence in time or location (e.g., first kiss, 11th hour) but not when indicating sequence in naming conventions (usually geographic, military, or political, e.g., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals).

Chicago (9.6)

  • Spell out ordinal numbers up to (and including) hundredth (e.g., second, sixty-first, 333rd, 1,024th).

A Word About Consistency

AP (p. 203)

  • If you’re juggling a bunch of numbers within the same sentence, stick to the rules as stated and you’ll be fine. Breathe.

Chicago (9.7)

  • If you’re juggling a bunch of numbers within the same paragraph or series of paragraphs, be flexible with the number style if doing so will improve clarity and comprehension. For example, use one number style for items in one category and another style for another category: “I read four books with more than 400 pages, sixty books with more than 100 pages, and a hundred articles with fewer than 4 pages.”

Now that the basics of number style have been laid out, I bet that you can smell the exceptions 1.1 miles away. [A beat, then exit stage right]

Titles: Quote Marks, Italics, Underlining, or Naked?

Remember the days when your manual typewriter didn’t have a key for the number 1, so you used a lowercase letter L instead? And to type an exclamation point, you typed an apostrophe first, backspaced, and then typed a period beneath it? Sure you do, punk.

Clarification: I’m not that old; my high school was poor. We pasted our newspaper dummies together with wax and made type changes with a dull razor.

Well, we don’t type that way anymore, because technology has blessed us with 1s and !s on our keyboards. Likewise, because we are capable of rendering type in italics, you underline titles only when writing them by hand or using software that doesn’t italicize. As long as you remember that underlining equals italics and to never underline when you can italicize, you’re good.

You can get pretty far by following the “Big/heavy equals italics” (like books) and “Small/light equals quotes” (like poems) generalizations.

As for enclosing titles in quotation marks or italicizing them, you can get pretty far by following the “Big/heavy equals italics” (like books) and “Small/light equals quotes” (like poems) generalizations, but Associated Press style doesn’t italicize nothin’ and Chicago style has layers of specificity and if-then statements. Fun!

Because the Associated Press stylebook is not indexed and the manual for Chicago style covers title style in several sections (intermixed with name style and capitalization style), some title styles may have been inadvertently omitted due to oblivion on my part. Please send me a note if any oversight makes you twitch.

It’s all arbitrary, so go for clarity and sustainability.

Following is the breakdown between AP style and Chicago style. This is intended as a quick rundown or cheat sheet; for examples of each, please refer to the pages and sections indicated. “Neither” means that the usual headline-style (or title-style) caps still apply, but the title/name is naked as far as quotes and italics are concerned. (Capitalization for titles will be covered in a future blog entry.)

Note: Use Command-F or Ctrl-F to perform searches.

 

Titles for . . . AP Chicago
Albums Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.192)
Almanacs Neither (p. 62)
Apps Neither (p. 62), e.g., Facebook, Foursquare Italics (8.193)
Art Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.193)
Articles Quotes (8.175)
Bible Neither (p. 62)
Blog entries Quotes (8.187)
Blogs Italics (8.187)
Books Quotes (p. 62)—but the Bible and catalogs of reference material use neither Italics (8.166)—but book series and editions use neither (8.174)
Cartoons Italics (8.194)
Catalogs Neither (p. 62)
Chapters Quotes (8.175)
Classical music, nicknames Quotes (p. 63)
Classical music, identified by sequence Neither (p. 63)
Columns (in periodicals) Neither (8.175, 14.205)
Comic strips Italics (8.194)
Computer games and computer-game apps Quotes (p. 62), e.g., “Farmville” Italics (Chicago Style Q&A)
Computer software Neither for software such as WordPerfect or Windows (p. 62)
Conferences Neither (8.69)—unless it has “status,” then use quotes
Departments (in periodicals) Neither (8.175, 14.202)
Dictionaries Neither (p. 62)
Directories Neither (p. 62)
Drawings Italics (8.193)
Encyclopedias Neither (p. 62)
Essays Quotes (8.175)
Exhibitions (large) Neither (8.195)
Exhibitions (small) Italics (8.195)
Fairs (large) Neither (8.195)
Fairs (small) Italics (8.195)
Gazetteers Neither (p. 62)
Handbooks Neither (p. 62)
Journals Italics (8.166)—unless part of name of award, organization, etc. (8.170)
Lecture series Neither (8.86)
Lectures (individual) Quotes (p. 62) Quotes (8.86)
Magazines Neither (p. 159) Italics (8.166)—unless part of name of award, organization, etc. (8.170)
Meetings Neither (8.69)—unless it has “status,” then use quotes
Movies Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.185)
Newspapers Italics (8.166)—unless part of name of award, organization, etc. (8.170)
Operas Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.189)—for long musical compositions or instrumental works, see 8.189-8.190
Paintings Italics (8.193)
Pamphlets Italics (8.193)
Periodicals Italics (8.166), unless part of name of award, organization, etc. (8.170)
Photographs Italics (8.193)
Plays Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.181)
Podcast episodes Quotes (8.187)
Podcasts Italics (8.187)
Poems Quotes (p. 62) Quotes (8.179)—unless book length, then treated as book (italics)
Radio episodes (in series) Quotes (8.185)
Radio programs and series Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.185)
Reports Italics (8.193)
Short stories Quotes (8.175)
Songs Quotes (p. 62) Quotes (8.189)
Speeches Quotes (p. 62) Neither (8.75)—unless it has “status,” then use quotes.
Statues Italics (8.193)
Television episodes (in series) Quotes (8.185)
Television programs and series Quotes (p. 62) Italics (8.185)
Unpublished works Quotes (8.184)
Video blogs Italics (8.187)
Video-blog episodes Quotes (8.187)
Web pages and sections Quotes (8.186)
Websites Neither (8.186)

When it gets confusing, just remember these golden rules of copyediting:

  1. Whatever you choose, be consistent.
  2. But beware of having a tin ear.
  3. It’s all arbitrary, so go for clarity and sustainability.

Good luck.