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The junction has a stop sign on each of the four entrances.
The junction has a stop sign on each of the 4 entrances.

The first is preferred, for some reason, by many English texts. Why? I haven't seen this phenomenon in other languages.

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+1 Great question. In school we were taught that it was a matter of style. BTW, this generally only applies for lower numbers. Usually for larger numbers, it is written numerically. –  Armstrongest Aug 16 '10 at 1:48
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1 extra element which no-one seems to have mentioned so far is that starting a sentence with an explicit numeral is a no-no. –  Benjol Aug 16 '10 at 5:29
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I thought that was the style in all languages. Can you give an example of a language where the explicit numerals are not avoided? –  b.roth Aug 16 '10 at 8:28
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@Bruno, @RedDwight: Russian language, for instance. In fact, replacing numerals with actual digits when translating from English to Russian is seen as a sign of a good translator (and vice versa for translating from Russian to English). Then again, I can't claim every numeral gets replaced with a digit -- there's some kind of "that feels enough" limit. –  GSerg Aug 16 '10 at 12:53
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@bruno, In russian "ты мне должен 10 рублей" looks perfect. In Hebrew, "מהירות האור שווה ל-1 במערכת יחידות נכונה" looks perfect, despite that this afro-semitic language has genders for all numerals and reading it out loud would constitute an additional mental effort to recognize gender from context, as well as to switch bidi reading order twice. In Italian, from Oriana Fallaci's book la rabbia e orgoglio: "Erano le 9 e un quarto, ora" you see one number actually broken into a combination of digits and letters. –  Pavel Radzivilovsky Aug 17 '10 at 9:08
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13 Answers

I have also noticed when reading French and Spanish texts, that it is quite normal to write numbers below ten in full as well, e.g. "los tres hombres que..." instead of "los 3 hombres que..."

My guess is that writing numbers in full in a European language is easier than using Roman numerals, which were the mainstay until the Arabic-Hindu number system came to Europe. Eg, it is easier to understand "one hundred and fourty five" than it is to understand CVL or CXLV or CXXXXV, which are all different and valid ways of writing 145, with CXXXXV being the most common. Clumsy. So after the vastly superior Hindu-Arabic system was adopted in Europe, the habit of writing numbers as words would have remained.

English, being a European language, would have kept similar habits as per the other European languages.

Today, it is a simply an issue of style, so it is not wrong to always write numbers with numerals or to always write them in full. For instance, APA recommends that numbers below 10 are written in full, while numbers 10 and above are written with numerals. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that all numbers below 100 are written in full, with numbers above 100 written as numerals.

Both style guides prohibit mixing spelt out numbers with numbers expressed as numerals, favouring numerals for all numbers when they are mixed. But my local newspaper, quite happily mixes numbers 1-9 spelt out, and higher numbers expressed with numerals.

The rules in both style guides (and others) are actually a lot more comprehensive than that, but I see no reason to include them here.

Most high schools teach similar rules in their English classes, which leads to everybody being accustomed to writing numbers out in full. In addition, as everybody is used to seeing numbers expressed like that in their novels, newspapers, and other texts, it becomes further engrained in the psyche of English writers.

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From what little I recall from my high school Journalism classes, there are also journalism conventions for when to use numerals versus words, and it varies between text in title vs text in the story. Additionally there was some more rules for a news articles, sports articles, features, and editorials. –  Ants Sep 7 '10 at 21:56
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Re Roman Numerals: I thought CXLV would be the most common. More than three of the same symbol in a row is generally avoided. 4 is written as IV, not IIII. –  DisgruntledGoat Sep 8 '10 at 12:29
    
@DisgruntledGoat Except on clocks: ubr.com/clocks/frequently-asked-questions-faq/… –  Ben Hocking May 12 '11 at 14:43
    
@Ben: Interesting, did not know that. Incidentally I just checked my clock downstairs that uses Roman Numerals and it uses IIII for 4, but IX for 9 (rather than VIIII). Perhaps 5 letters is just too much on a clock... –  DisgruntledGoat May 12 '11 at 19:28
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@DisgruntledGoat: Practice varied wildly: having read many Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, I don't think there was much uniformity. I think IIII, XXXX, and CCCC were often preferred to IV, XL, and CM in most numbers, but not in dates. Five of the same letter was rare but did happen occasionally. –  Cerberus May 23 '11 at 14:55
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I had the impression that while it does boil down to a matter of style, the rule of thumb was "if you are writing words (i.e. English prose), use the word form, and if you are writing numbers (i.e. math) use the numerals", until the word form becomes so large as to become cumbersome.

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I fully agree to this opinion. One shouldn't break the alphabetic stream with a numeric symbol. Yes, it is a matter of style. +1 to mickeyf! –  Dia Sep 6 '10 at 11:19
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@Dia - Should that not be "plus one to mickeyf!" ;-) –  neil Jun 7 '12 at 17:20
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Switching from letters to numbers is jarring. It almost shouts out as you, as numbers are often as tall as uppercase letters in typefaces. I much prefer to write and read I have six passports than I have 6 passports.

It can come across as overly lazy as well, along the lines of I have six pprts.

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and yet, it seems to be english-specific. –  Pavel Radzivilovsky Aug 31 '10 at 14:36
    
Of course using lower case figures (aka text figures or old-style figures) can reduce impact of switching. Also with larger numbers (that would require a lot of text) digits are less of an issue--but such numbers are rare in non-technical prose. –  Richard Sep 28 '10 at 9:26
    
Much of what we write is influenced by the sound of the spoken version. We tend to hear words in our heads as we read them, and if a number is written as a word, the mental process of hearing the number remains the same as it is for the surrounding words. If a numeral intervenes, it requires us to shift abruptly to a different interpretation system in order to hear the number in our heads, and then shift immediately back to the usual "word" interpretation system. This makes us tend to prefer the written word version, unless that version is typographically long and daunting. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 13 '13 at 9:48
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I don't have a source, so this might be an useless answer, but in Norwegian the rule is the same, however only up to and including twelve. 13 on the other hand should be written with explicit numerals. No clue as to why.

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That's fascinating. This likely has to do with the fact that after twelve, just like in English and other languages, you start to add a suffix like 'teen' ('ten' in Norwegian) to the number when spelled out. My hunch is that twelve is much more practical than 10 when dividing up goods (unlike 10, you can get even results when dividing by 2, 3, 4 and 6), and so numbers up to it were given distinct words. –  Joost Schuur Dec 22 '10 at 6:12
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Generally, numbers up to twenty are written as a word, because it is just one word. Go any further than twenty and you are dealing with compound words, which I guess people don't like very much. So numbers greater than twenty are written as numerals.

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I have seen this threshold (20) quoted in at least one newspaper style manual. –  hawbsl Nov 23 '10 at 9:12
    
Yes, but why? Why write "seventeen" instead of "17"? –  ShreevatsaR Oct 26 '13 at 10:10
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Further to other answers, one reason you may wish to write out large numbers in full is if the meaning or pronunciation needs to be clarified. For example, does 123 represent "one hundred and twenty-three," or "one-two-three"?

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I'm pretty sure one would write "one-two-three" as "1-2-3". –  Jeff Dec 22 '10 at 19:31
    
@Jeff: You're probably right, that's just the first example that popped into my head. There are surely situations where spelling out the numbers clarifies the pronunciation/meaning more than any other method. –  DisgruntledGoat Dec 22 '10 at 21:00
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English writers avoid explicit numerals in text to maintain consistency, which is a chief goal in any written work. How/why is consistency maintained by avoiding explicit numerals? Two answers:

  1. According to my dictionary (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed), one definition of text is

    written or printed words...
    Numerals are not words. Thus, using them in text creates an inconsistency that many writers would like to avoid.

  2. The numerals are Arabic and if the text is to be consistently in English, they must be strictly avoided within the body of the text.

I must note that writers of scientific articles, news articles, and other texts where numbers are important, use Arabic numerals within text at will.

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(2) can't be right. Numerals might be derived from Arabic, but an Arabic two looks more like a backwards 7 and an Arabic five looks like 0. Western numerals are distinctly Western. –  Andrew Leach Apr 13 '13 at 10:41
    
@AndrewLeach: The term "Arabic numeral" specifically refers to "0, 1, 2, ..., 3". That does not mean this is how they are written in modern Arabic. (Obviously, numerals in Arabic are completely different today.) Actually, the system was established in India but reached the West likely through the Arabian peninsula, hence the term. Prior to this, Roman numerals ruled the day (in Europe, that is). –  Jimi Oke Apr 15 '13 at 15:33
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My typography tutor (UK) taught me the convention was to use words for numbers from one to ten and digits for 11 upwards. Maybe because single digits look lonely, 1 can be confused with I when scan-reading (certainly in san serif fonts where 1, lower case L and capital I are exactly the same)? Perhaps this is a decimalised version of the German one-to-twelve rule mentioned above

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That's a convention that's sometimes applied too rigidly – it's not uncommon to see copy like "from 12 to eight", which I find particularly jarring because of the inconsistency. –  Brian Nixon Dec 22 '10 at 20:27
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French writers are taught to use words to write numbers and figures whenever sensible, without a conventional limit to twelve.

The main reason, as already stated by another answerer, is a matter of uniformity in the resulting page. I remember being advised not to write "17e siècle" (17th century), but "dix-septième siècle", eventually XVIIe as a tolerance.

Moreover, in France, when you write a personal check, which is still quite common compared to other countries, you have to write the sum in full prose, such as "trente-et-un euros et dix centimes", besides a numerical version (here 31,10), and the "word" version of the sum has precedence over the numerical one if there is a discrepancy. Credit cards make this less prominent but this used to be a source of difficulty for everyday life of illiterates.

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American checks follow the same convention: the amount must be written in words as well as numerals, and the words have precedence. –  MT_Head Jan 17 '13 at 1:45
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The real reason is because the style dictators don't use many large numbers in their writing and their choice in favour of words (for the small numbers that do occur in their writing) is both aesthetic and possibly math phobic.

For other people, the convention causes an unaesthetic inconsistency in that small numbers are written in words and large numbers are in numerals. The convention may not be suitable for all writers and I have abandoned it in favour of numerals for everything.

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The rules I've learned are:

Use words unless the number is:

  • not round ("two million" vs. "723" and "1.3 billion"),
  • used in an address, phone number, filing, score, time, date or other enumeration systems ("Pier 17", "cabin 02", "2:0 for the Lakers" vs. "twenty seven students").

As for your example, the entrances are not enumerated in any system. Therefore:

The junction has a stop sign on each of the four entrances.

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It's important to remember that in technical contexts, numerals are preferred. For example, "In one experiment, the result was 1."

The main hurdle to overcome is to learn that in technical contexts, we use numerals in text, even ones below 10. In other words, we break the rules that are taught in regular writing courses and that are used in normal publishing and copyediting practice. That's because in the technical and scientific context, we are vitally interested in numbers, statistical data, even if it's a 2 or 5 or—yes—even a 0. ... You should use numerals, not words, when the number is a key value, an exact measurement value, or both.

More detailed examples at Online Technical Writing

8.1.2 In technical text or measurements:
To express numerical information in mathematical, statistical, or scientific text, always use numerals.
9 centimeters
14 square feet
240 volts
5 degrees Celsius

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I remember being taught, or perhaps teaching myself, the following rule of thumb:

Use numerals when a number is referred to in the abstract, but spell it out when counting people/objects.

Thus:

The junction has a stop sign on each of the four entrances.

The number of entrance stop signs at the junction is 4.

I slowed the car to 8 miles per hour.

This suggests a corresponding difference in the shade of meaning of the number: A noun or an adjective used for counting.

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