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

Articles > Numbers (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]

State Abbreviations: Use Traditional or Go Postal?

Articles > State Abbreviations

In this quick guide to state abbreviations, I will cover the differences between AP style and Chicago style and—just to prolong your state of confusion—when to use the common two-letter abbreviations created by the United States Postal Service.

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases and just lean on these basic guidelines:

  • In running text, AP and Chicago both spell out state names.
  • For mailing addresses, AP and Chicago both default to the two-letter postal abbreviations.
  • For all other abbreviations, AP uses its own state abbreviations and Chicago prefers postal abbreviations (but has its own state abbreviations should that style be more appropriate for your publication).

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases.

Did that little appetizer leave you wanting more? If so, I love you. And please read on for an expanded version of the brain-twisting details.

AP (online, fee required)

  • Spell out state names in running text.
  • Abbreviate state names when used in (1) datelines on stories (e.g., KOSHKONONG, Mo.), (2) photo captions, (3) lists, (4) tables, and (5) short-form listings of party affiliation (e.g., D-Calif.). Refer to AP’s “datelines” entry for use of certain well-known city names alone.
  • Use two-letter postal abbreviations only in mailing addresses which include a zip code: “To complain about AP style, write to The Associated Press, 450 W. 33rd St., New York, NY 10001.”
  • For headlines, the new rule says to avoid abbreviating states whenever possible, and the old rule—in case you can’t avoid abbreviating—said to lose the periods when using abbreviations which consist of two capital letters: NY but Ky.

Chicago (10.28)

  • Spell out state names when they stand alone in running text: “I don’t see why Kansas and Arkansas can’t make their names rhyme.”
  • Spell out state names when used with the name of a city (except for DC): “I was born in New York, New York—please stop singing.”
  • Two-letter postal abbreviations are preferred over traditional abbreviations when state names are used in bibliographies, tables, lists, blah cetera.

U.S. Postal Service

Following are the differences between AP and Chicago style in how state names are rendered in their respective “traditional” abbreviations. (Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.)

Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.

Aside #1: If your quality expectations are sufficiently lax, as are mine, you might enjoy Wikipedia’s version of how state abbreviations evolved and come up with your own explanation for why there are different notions of what’s traditional. Don’t bother consulting the stylebooks’ official dictionaries for the proper abbreviations: Those are more descriptive than prescriptive, and having more options will only confuse you.

Aside #2: The two-letter U.S. Postal Service code is listed parenthetically after the complete state name, but you probably figured that out.

Aside #3: Note that none of the two-word abbreviations have a space after the first period, e.g., N.Mex. and R.I.

Note to those who thought they were being smart by skipping straight to this list: Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviations over traditional abbreviations; all options are listed below. Use Command-F or Ctrl-F to perform searches. That’s right, it’s ugly for a reason.

 

Alabama (AL)

  • Both: Ala.

Alaska (AK)

  • AP: Alaska
  • Chicago: Alaska or Alas.

Arizona (AZ)

  • Both: Ariz.

Arkansas (AR)

  • Both: Ark.

California (CA)

  • Both: Calif.

Colorado (CO)

  • Both: Colo.

Connecticut (CT)

  • Both: Conn.

Delaware (DE)

  • Both: Del.

District of Columbia (DC)

  • AP: District of Columbia
  • Chicago: D.C.

Florida (FL)

  • Both: Fla.

Georgia (GA)

  • Both: Ga.

Hawaii (HI)

  • Both: Hawaii

Idaho (ID)

  • Both: Idaho

Illinois (IL)

  • Both: Ill.

Indiana (IN)

  • Both: Ind.

Iowa (IA)

  • Both: Iowa

Kansas (KS)

  • AP: Kan.
  • Chicago: Kans.

Kentucky (KY)

  • Both: Ky.

Louisiana (LA)

  • Both: La.

Maine (ME)

  • Both: Maine

Maryland (MD)

  • Both: Md.

Massachusetts (MA)

  • Both: Mass.

Michigan (MI)

  • Both: Mich.

Minnesota (MN)

  • Both: Minn.

Mississippi (MS)

  • Both: Miss.

Missouri (MO)

  • Both: Mo.

Montana (MT)

  • Both: Mont.

Nebraska (NE)

  • AP: Neb.
  • Chicago: Neb. or Nebr.

Nevada (NV)

  • Both: Nev.

New Hampshire (NH)

  • Both: N.H.

New Jersey (NJ)

  • Both: N.J.

New Mexico (NM)

  • AP: N.M.
  • Chicago: N.Mex.

New York (NY)

  • Both: N.Y.

North Carolina (NC)

  • Both: N.C.

North Dakota (ND)

  • AP: N.D.
  • Chicago: N.Dak.

Ohio (OH)

  • Both: Ohio

Oklahoma (OK)

  • Both: Okla.

Oregon (OR)

  • AP: Ore.
  • Chicago: Ore. or Oreg.

Pennsylvania (PA)

  • Both: Pa.

Rhode Island (RI)

  • Both: R.I.

South Carolina (SC)

  • Both: S.C.

South Dakota (SD)

  • AP: S.D.
  • Chicago: S.Dak.

Tennessee (TN)

  • Both: Tenn.

Texas (TX)

  • AP: Texas
  • Chicago: Tex.

Utah (UT)

  • Both: Utah

Vermont (VT)

  • Both: Vt.

Virginia (VA)

  • Both: Va.

Washington (WA)

  • Both: Wash.

West Virginia (WV)

  • Both: W.Va.

Wisconsin (WI)

  • AP: Wis.
  • Chicago: Wis. or Wisc.

Wyoming (WY)

  • Both: Wyo.

Chicago also lists other U.S. territories, only two of which have traditional abbreviations (Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). None of these are abbreviated in AP style, except in mailing addresses.

  • American Samoa (AS)
  • Federated States of Micronesia (FM)
  • Guam (GU)*
  • Marshall Islands (MH)*
  • Northern Mariana Islands (MP)
  • Palau (PW)
  • Puerto Rico (PR)*: P.R. or Puerto Rico
  • Virgin Islands (VI)*: V.I. or Virgin Islands

*Check entry in the Associated Press stylebook for more details.

You can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.

Final tip: It might help to know that AP’s standard abbreviations are shorter than (or the same as) Chicago’s for all U.S. states except Alaska and Texas. Well, we might as well throw in District of Columbia. And, if feeling generous, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. Or, in favor of keeping your brain less cluttered, you can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.