The numbers game

I have frequent requests in my writing classes to explain how to express numbers in technical and business writing. Let me be honest with you: I can’t possibly cover all the variables involved in writing numbers in this brief post. In fact, I could actually shorten this article dramatically if I just said: “Consult your chosen style guide.”

For most business and technical writing, I preach that the style guide of choice is
The Gregg Reference Manual
, which

Gregg Reference Manual

has a 30-page section on how to use figures or words to express numbers (Part 1, Section 4). The first four pages prescribe the basic rules, which I will summarize here:

Use words to represent numbers from 1 through 10 (for example: one, two three . . . ten) and use figures for numbers above 10. (Rule 401)

We sent six people to the conference.

I lost only 11 files when my computer crashed.

Use all figures for 1 through 10 when the numbers need to stand out for quick comprehension or have technical significance (Rule 401).

Cut the wire strip into 1-cm lengths.

Use words to represent numbers at the beginning of a sentence (Rule 401).

Sixteen employees called in sick with the flu.

When two or more related numbers appear in the same sentence, use figures for all numbers if one of the numbers is larger than 10.

We have always sent between 10 and 20 employees to the conference.

Use word style for numbers from 1 through 100 when writing high-level executive correspondence or nontechnical documents such as formal announcements, invitations, or literary texts (rule 404).

Other style guides differ from this advice (for example, The American Medical Association Manual of Style prescribes using figures for numbers 1 and above [with a few exceptions]). Be sure to consult any style guides that you are required to use in your job or industry.

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