5 guidelines for using numbers in your writing

Expressing numerical values in text can be troublesome. Here are some guidelines to help you and your readers.

1. Number collisions

In the sentence, “The day the slain woman was to turn 28, 3,000 gathered at a church to recall her life,” the proximity of her age (expressed numerically rather than spelled out) and the number of mourners confuses the eye. Readers may assume, before they comprehend the sense of the sentence, that the comma after her age and the following letter space are erroneous and that the digits belong in one figure.

If the numerical style for the age is correct, revise the sentence to read, “The day the slain woman was to turn 28, several thousand people gathered at a church to recall her life.” (This distraction can also occur when a year, a room or building number, or any other numerical designation precedes a figure.)

2. Number ranges

Do not use the word from preceding a number range in which an en dash (or, as is employed often in newspapers and online, a hyphen) appears: “The Korean War lasted from 1950–1953” should read “The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953,” or “The Korean War lasted 1950–1953.” “The class will be held from 7–10 p.m.” is correctly expressed, “The class will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.,” (the first p.m. may be elided) as in, “The class will be held 7–10 p.m.”

3. Number names

When you employ specialized terms that include combinations of numbers or numbers and letters, be sure you’re typing them correctly. The term in this clause, “It’s safe to open your 401K statement again,” is correctly rendered 401(k). The designation for a certain nonprofit corporation sometimes incorrectly styled 501c3 or 501(c)3 should appear as 501(c)(3).

4. Numbers with hyphenation

I’ve written about hyperhyphenation and hypohyphenation before, but these twin troubles persist, so I will, too: Pay attention when using hyphens in phrases involving numbers. No hyphens are necessary in, “The electrified fence is 10 feet high,” because “10 feet high” is a simple description, not an adjectival phrase describing a noun that follows immediately (“a 10-foot-high electrified fence” is correct).

One of those extra hyphens can be donated to the phrase “21-year old world record,” which refers not to an old world record consisting of 21 years (is that “old world,” as in “old-world charm”?), but to a world record that is 21 years old.

5. Numbers and currency

Take care when making references to money: Redundant references such as, “The fine was set at $5 million dollars,” or, “I found $100 bucks in an old shoe box,” are common. Be consistent in one article or book about whether you use currency symbols or spell the terms out; the determination should be based on the level of formality (currency terms are usually spelled out in more formal writing) weighed against the frequency of occurrence (numerous and/or technical references to money are best presented with symbols).

Keep in mind, too, that use of the dollar sign is ubiquitous, but the cent sign is rare, so if reference is made separately to dollars and cents, it’s best to spell out both terms: “In 1960, the candy bar cost 5 cents; by the beginning of the 21st century, it sold for a dollar.”

Also, avoid using numerals for orders of magnitude. The figure in the sentence, “The binary star is more than 57,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth,” is difficult to read, as is the total in the sentence, “The budget was $5,666,943,643.” In the first example, use the term of magnitude: “The binary star is more than 57 trillion miles from Earth.” Use the same approach for the monetary figure, which is unnecessarily precise; multidigit references to currency are often rounded off at two decimals past the degree of magnitude: “The budget was 5.67 billion dollars.”

This article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.com.

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