JS Tip 436: Using Numbers

From the Writing Workshops: Using Numbers

Travis Heath at Zions Bancorporation asked about numbers.

Number usage varies from discipline to discipline, but, in general, in business writing, spell out numbers less than one hundred:

  • We had seven applicants for every job. 

    We approved the lease for ninety-nine years.

    The house was 103 years old.

Spell out rounded large numbers:

  • The farm included two hundred acres of swampland.

    The village has a population of over two thousand.

Use numerals for specific large numbers:

            The census indicated 2,325 residents.

Avoid Ms to indicate thousands. To some readers, M means a thousand. To others, M means a million. It’s too confusing. Spell it out. 

Even spelled out, “billion” can be confusing. Until 1974, in Great Britain, a billion was a million million (“1,000,000,000,000). In the US, a billion meant—and still means—a thousand million (1,000,000,000). (Waaaaay too much to make a mistake about.) Some countries still use the long form (the million million), so be careful.  

There are lots of exceptions. A source for this is The Reference Book or, even better, The Chicago Manual of StyleChicago spends twenty-one pages on numbers, numerals, words, and exceptions.

Funny story: Thousand Oaks, California, is northwest of Los Angeles. Imagine the shock of strangers who read the headline, “Two Thousand Oaks Men Killed in Traffic Accident.” Wow. That was some traffic accident. 

What are your questions?   

Mark Brooks