The terms ‘numbers’ and ‘numerals’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between these words. A number is a concept and a numeral expresses that concept in writing. For example, the number five is a concept and you can express it in different ways.
For instance, you could hold up five fingers, say the word or write it down. Once you have written it down it becomes a numeral, irrespective of whether you write ‘five’, ‘5’ or the Latin ‘V’.
In practice, though, I think we often use numerals to refer to numbers expressed in digits.
Words for small numbers and numerals for large numbers
Most style guides suggest that you use words for small numbers and numerals for larger numbers, but the cut-off point varies. In Australia, the most common convention in business writing is to use words for ‘one’ to ‘nine’ and numerals for ‘10’ upwards.
Whatever your cut-off point, this rule is fairly straightforward, but causes challenges if you have a small and large numeral in the same sentence. In this situation, one can use the above rule or choose consistency:
We read eight drafts in 11 days.
We read 8 drafts in 11 days.
The ‘cut-off’ convention does not usually apply to percentages (4%), money ($6), decimal points (6.5 million), measurement 6cm) or tables.
Why not use numerals rather than words?
Increasingly, I am seeing numerals used in text and I wonder why we cling to this ‘one’ to ‘nine’ rule, which does not seem to be founded in any logic.
However, there are two areas that cause me concern:
- Using a numeral at the beginning of a sentence. Traditionally, words have always been used at the beginning of a sentence, irrespective of the size of number. I still find that sentences starting with a numeral look odd, yet I accept a bullet point starting with a numeral.
Twenty-five people attended the meeting.
25 people attended the meeting.
- The use of ‘1’ rather than ‘one’.
The meeting passed one resolution.
The meeting passed 1 resolution.
I think I could get used to seeing ‘1’ instead of ‘one’, but I would find it hard to accept sentences starting with a numeral. I’m not sure why.
What numbering style do you use and why?
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