Should I write 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', when discussing George Orwell's novel in an essay, or '1984'? Is it considered unconventional, or overly colloquial to use the latter form?

This question applies for any book title consisting solely of a number, although I can't call to mind any.

  • 1
    If the book title really was a number, that is certainly what you should call it. There is some dispute about what Orwell actually called his book so (unless you are in one of the faculties where the dispute matters) you can use either. Sep 6 '14 at 20:16
  • Can you point me to this dispute? So far I've been struggling to find anything authoritative about the proper name.
    – Lou
    Sep 6 '14 at 20:17
  • 1
    I was about to point out that at least the 1997 movie 187 is never written out… until I Googled it and discovered that IMDb has the title as One Eight Seven. Peh. :-/ Sep 6 '14 at 22:07
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Well, there’s always the film 300, which despite its name was actually about the 300 Spartans killed at Thermopylae (along with others) — not the 300 from the Sacred Band of Thebes killed at Chaeronea whom Philip famously buried with honor. Then again, the filmmakers seem to have blurred those lines themselves.
    – tchrist
    Sep 6 '14 at 22:57
  • 6
    It seems to me that George Orwell already wrote it in full, so you don't need to write it again.
    – bmargulies
    Sep 7 '14 at 23:23

It doesn't matter. I'd argue the 1984 title is in more common usage nowadays. However there are many early covers suggesting maybe Orwell himself titled it Nineteen Eighty-Four.

enter image description hereenter image description hereenter image description here

I think you can choose whichever you please; however, Nineteen Eighty-Four may sound pretentious today because of its scarcity.

My favorite new cover:

enter image description here

Penguin Books (publishers), David Pearson (designer), 2013 Source

  • 2
    It sounds more like a real book title to write Nineteen Eighty-Four; otherwise there are no letters in it, which is really weird. I am having a very hard time thinking of a book title without any words in it. Even Richard Morgan’s novel Black Man was in the United States published under the title Thirteen, not 13. I wonder whether you wouldn’t have a tough time publishing a book whose name were nothing but punctuation, like #!??, for example.
    – tchrist
    Sep 6 '14 at 21:23
  • 2
    Don't forget that images are also copyright works, and attributable.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 6 '14 at 22:16
  • I do rather like that Penguin cover though. Clever. Now they just need to go back to printing them on real cardboard instead of that shiny coated stuff they use now.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 6 '14 at 22:34
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    @AndrewLeach - how does one attribute a book cover? I've never done it before. I'll try t figure it out, I guess. Sep 7 '14 at 2:40
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    "After publishing Octothorpe Exclamation Point Question Mark Question Mark she went on to....." [ @tchrist ]
    – Shokhet
    Sep 8 '14 at 4:34

Orwell actually called the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, but even that was transformed into nineteen eighty-four on the cover of the first edition — and the figure 1984 appeared as well.

Nineteen Eighty-Four first edition

There have been many editions, some featuring the title spelled out in words, others using the figures. The 1987 Penguin edition I have, first published by that house in 1954, spells out the title in words and features the original copyright attribution prominently, "Copyright 1949 by Eric Blair. All rights reserved." Given that, it's unlikely that his estate would have given permission for Penguin not to use the original title in its original form, and it should be spelled out in full.

"1984first" by George Orwell; published by Secker and Warburg (London) - Brown University Library. Image via Wikipedia


I'd suggest you use whatever is on the cover of your book.
In this case it's the number in digits.
enter image description here

And in this case it's spelled out:
enter image description here

Update: According to this Brown University site It says:

29.c. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel printed wrappers, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949, Advance Review Copy, First American Edition.
PR6029.R8 N49 1949 proof Hay Star

Harcourt preferred the title "The Last Man in Europe," or at least the use of the numbers "1984", but ultimately agreed to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

From this it sounds like Orwell was pushing for it to be spelled out.


Unless the dispute over the name is an integral part of the work you've been taught, I genuinely don't think it matters; given that the dispute exists, no reasonable instructor would expect you to definitively know which is the correct one, and both clearly refer to the same book.

  • Good point and well made.
    – Lou
    Sep 6 '14 at 20:44
  • That's an opinion, Sir.
    – Kris
    Sep 8 '14 at 5:20

This history of the different editions of the book is interesting:

History of 1984 book covers

In the 40s, the first american and uk versions, it was spelled out. Then in 50s we started to see the numbers.

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