Words or Numbers?

Because business writing is often numbers-focused, one of the biggest challenges is knowing when to use words and when to use figures to express a numeral. It’s a big enough challenge, in fact, that the Associated Press Stylebook dedicates no fewer than 50 entries to the subject!

That’s way too much to remember off the top of your head, of course, but here are a couple of tips that should help you make the right decision in some of the most common words-versus-numbers situations:

  • If you need to start a sentence with a numeral, spell it out. If the number’s too big to spell out, consider restructuring the sentence so it can begin another way. Years are the only real exception to this rule. If you’d like to say, 2017 was a banner year for sales, feel free. And congratulations.
  • When you’re spelling out a large number, be sure to use a hyphen to connect any numeral that ends in with another numeral, like seventy-two or one thousand six hundred twenty-eight.
  • In most situations, plan to spell out single-digit whole numbers (e.g., five) and use figures for numbers 10 and above. That includes sentences that require a series of numerals (The company’s third-quarter results surpassed the previous year’s by 13 percent.).

As with every English-language rule, there are literally dozens of exceptions and special circumstances (ages, fractions, roads, temperatures and proper names to name just a handful), but these few should keep you in the black most of the time.

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