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Why do English writers avoid explicit numerals?

Based on my previous question regarding spelling out monetary amounts, is there a rule of thumb when a number should be spelled out?

These examples are easy:

I have two brothers.

It's exactly 823 miles to New York.

But do I have 15 minutes of fame, or fifteen minutes of fame?

Edit: This related question asks how the practice of spelling out numbers originated; I'm looking for specific guidelines.

  • 1
    Keep in mind that my answer to your other question only concerned dialogue. The general rules are a little more complex and vary by region, genre, publisher and publication.
    – bye
    Feb 21, 2011 at 9:02
  • Following the one (or two) word rule you'd "have fifteen minutes of fame".
    – Inti Soto
    Feb 21, 2011 at 9:04

2 Answers 2


It's all about style and consistency. If you're writing for a specific publication or medium, you should adopt its guidelines. The rules tend, however, to follow the broad guidelines below:

  • Small numbers (below twelve) should typically be spelt out.
  • For larger numbers, consider the space available to you and the length of the number when spelt out. If you're restricted in space (journal column, letter, headlines, display text, etc.), use numbers.
  • If the numbers are round or approximate, they're more likely to be spelt out: “the accidental release resulted in the death of two hundreds”, but “at the end of the day, 137 people lost their life in the explosion”.
  • If you are comparing numbers, or describing series of number, spell them out for clarity: “of the 129 units sold in the fourth quarter, 54 were shipped to European countries and 21 were sent to Russia”.

As with anything, the rule ends up being: you are writing to be read, so do what you can to maximise legibility.

  • In the fourth point, am I missing something? It says "spell them out for clarity:," but then it uses numbers in the examples. I'm no expert, but I would think using numbers would be clearer than spelling them out. Oct 29, 2015 at 12:07
  • Spell out numbers one through ten
  • Spell out numbers above ten, unless you have to use more than two words
  • Always spell out numbers that begin sentences
  • However, you should try to avoid using long, clunky numbers at the beginning of a sentence

Use numbers for:

  • Dates
  • Phone numbers
  • Time; except when using "o'clock" or when omitting a.m. or p.m.

From Homeworktips

In addition to the previous, The Bedford Handbook, Seventh Edition, says at 41b

Generally, figures are accepted for dates, addresses, percentages, fractions, decimals, scores, statistics, and other numerical results, exact amounts of money, divisions of books and plays, pages, identification numbers, and the time.

  • The "one word" rule is a great rule of thumb. Of course, if you're subject to a style manual that says otherwise, go with the manual.
    – bye
    Feb 21, 2011 at 8:59

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