Nov 242015

How do you express numbers in your writing?

Blog pic Most reporters use Morson’s English Guide for Court Reporters, 2nd Edition when looking for the correct way to use numbers and digits in their transcript.  But I am sure that someone will tell me that they use something different.  I was taught Morson’s, but I am sure there are other good guides, so we won’t go round and round about who is best.  My question really is:  How do you express numbers in your writing, and are you consistent?

Consistency is the key, I believe, in a good transcript.  If you make an error in a number/digit decision and it never repeats itself ever, I would say that is best.  But if you do make an error and you make it consistently in the transcript, while I am not recommending that, it may never be caught by the reader.  They may not know the rule.  So let’s talk about some of the obvious rules that most of us can agree on.

When do you use figures (digits) and when do you write out the number in words (letters)?  That is, when do you write 9 and when do you write nine?  Numbers under 10 should be spelled out.  I purchased two bananas yesterday at the store, but while I was there, I saw that they had 22 different versions of cookies available!  

  1. Number versus numeral.  First things first, what is the difference between a number and a numeral?  A number is an abstract concept while a numeral is a symbol used to express that number.  “Three,” “3″ and “III” are all symbols used to express the same number (or the concept of “threeness”).  One could say that the difference between a number and its numerals is like the difference between a person and her name.  So in this case, you would say John Paul II versus John Paul the second or John Paul 2.
  2. Spell small numbers out.  The small numbers, such as whole numbers smaller than ten, should be spelled out.  That’s one rule you can count on.  If you don’t spell numbers out it will look like you’re sending an instant message and is not appropriate for the legal transcript.
  3. Using the comma.  In English, the comma is used as a thousand’s separator (and the period as a decimal separator), to make large numbers easier to read.  So write the size of Alaska as 571,951 square miles instead of 571951 square miles.  If the number has a decimal in it like 4.2 percent of the class failed, then use the digits, not spelled out like four point two percent.
  4. Don’t start a sentence with a numeral.  Make it “Fourscore and seven years ago,” not “4 score and 7 years ago.”
  5. Centuries and decades should be spelled out.  Use the Eighties or nineteenth century.
  6. Percentages and recipes.  If this was informal writing or recipes, you can use digits, like “4% of the children” or “Add 2 cups of brown rice.”  In formal writing, however, you should spell the percentage out like “twelve percent of the players.”
  7. If the number is rounded or estimated, spell it out.  Rounded numbers over a million are written as a numeral plus a word.  Use “About 400 million people speak Spanish natively,” instead of “About 400,000,000 people speak Spanish natively.”  If you’re using the exact number, you’d write it out, of course.
  8. Two numbers next to each other.  It can be confusing if you write “7 13-year-olds,” so write one of them as a numeral, like “seven 13-year-olds.”  Pick the number that has the fewest letters.

9. Ordinal numbers and consistency.  Don’t say “He was my 1st true love,” but rather “He was my first true love.”  Be consistent within the same sentence.  If my teacher has 23 beginning students, she also has 18 advanced students, not eighteen advanced students.