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What's the best way to write dollar amounts in a narrative (such as a novel), particularly if the amounts are large and/or fractional?

I would use this:

"The national debt just hit 14.6 trillion dollars," said Jack, "yet you complain about my $2 million fee and $5,000 airline tickets?"

Are there better ways to write this? Specifically:

  • What is a rule of thumb for spelling out amounts vs. keeping is as a number?
  • If I spell out dollars once, do I need to keep spelling it out within the same context?
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  • 2
    I wonder if this question is better suited for writers.SE.
    – Kosmonaut
    Feb 21 '11 at 14:26
  • If I'm being honest, I read "$2 million" and my brain goes "dollar two million" despite knowing immediately what it means anyway (and also being a native English speaker). Reading it like that disrupts my flow of thought and kind of gives me a weird blip as I read, so I would much rather like to see "two million dollars." That's a personal preference though, not a rule.
    – Syre Fayne
    Jan 10 '20 at 4:41
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In fictional dialogue I prefer to spell things out in words. It's not just a matter of getting the amounts across, but of getting across the language that the character uses. And getting specific about the currency doesn't matter in the least -- one can assume that the character(s) being spoken to are familiar with the system the speaker is using.

In this case, if your character is saying "fourteen point six trillion dollars", then those are the words that ought to appear on the page. I would also use "two million dollar fee" and "five thousand dollar airline tickets". (I might phrase that last more like "and a lousy five grand for airline tickets" just to spice things up a bit.)

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The alternative to what you posted would be:

"The national debt just hit 14.6 trillion dollars," said Jack, "yet you complain about my 2 million dollar fee and 5 thousand dollar airline tickets?"

I think the original version reads better. It seems lighter somehow.

Pondering on this a bit more, I'd say that the first monetary mention of "14.6 trillion dollars" already positions the concept of dollars in my mind, so my brain seems to like the lightness of "$2 million" and "$5,000".

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I find the sentence perfectly fine, except when you write $2 million; I don't think there is a better way to write it.

If it is not clear to which currency you are referring because the symbol is used for more currencies, I would first write something like "14.6 trillion of American dollars", and then write the other amounts like $2,000,000. If there isn't ambiguity, I would write the amounts prefixing them with the currency symbol.

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The typography iphone app suggests the following: Display large numbers simply, while remaining consistent within a sentence. So to keep the example sentence simple and consistent, I think it could be: "The national debt just hit $14.6 trillion ," said Jack, "yet you complain about my $2 million fee and $5 thousand airline tickets?"

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