Is it okay in an informal conversation to say a number digit by digit?

For example, is it okay to say "two five six kilobytes" instead of "two hundred and fifty-six kilobytes"?

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    You really only give numbers digit by digit if it's the kind of number you enter digit by digit (safe combinations, phone numbers). "256", the numeral, and the numerical value, is pronounced "two hundred and fifty-six". – Yee-Lum Dec 14 '15 at 17:17
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    Most things are OK in speech if you neither confuse not insult people. I would say (and it depends on context - e.g. could you confuse bits and bytes ) that "two five six kay" or "two fifty six kay" would be more common than giving the unit in full after just the digits of the number. – Chris H Dec 14 '15 at 17:17
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    I find it really hard to imagine anyone saying "two-five-six-K" to me in speech, and if anyone did, I'm sure I would give them a mildly alarmed look. "Two-fifty-six-K" is very different, because that's a common alternative to "two hundred and fifty-six" (and I should have noted that in my first comment!) – Yee-Lum Dec 14 '15 at 17:22
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    Sorry, my first comment is all kinds of wrong now that I think about it. There are other situations where you'd give a number digit by digit (hotel rooms, for one) that I didn't include, and plenty of situations where you would not say "two hundred and fifty-six" (hotel rooms again), so I was incorrect there. But I do think it would be really weird to say "two five six kilobytes". It's very situational. – Yee-Lum Dec 14 '15 at 17:29
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    I think you'd get some funny looks if you asked the grocer for One two eggs, please. What you probably wouldn't get is a dozen eggs. – FumbleFingers Dec 14 '15 at 17:32

It depends. Normally, it's easier to understand numbers when presented in a familiar way.

  • Dates are usually presented in groups of two: nineteen eightyfour
  • Commonly-used numbers are sometimes abbreviated: one-twenty-eight, two-fifty-six
  • numbers after decimals are usually said singly: three point one four
  • regular numbers are almost never abbreviated: two hundred fifty six dollars

There are some exceptions when you'd want to spell the numbers out, mainly when you are trying to ensure that the number is received exactly correctly:

  • phone numbers: dial eight six seven five three oh nine
  • room numbers: room twenty-three fourteen
  • any other time you're dictating a number and want to ensure correct transcription, such as reading your gas meter or if you need to be sure that the person on the other end gets the value correctly

When discussing regular numbers, it's difficult to understand a number if you just say the digits one after another. That's because you don't know how big the number is until the person stops saying it. 604893480264 is a big number, but if read aloud digit by digit the person has to wait until the last 4 before they can go back and try to remember what number they are receiving. Contrast that with six-hundred-four billion, eight hundred ninety three million, four-hundred eighty thousand, two hundred sixty four. Even if the person loses track of the number part way along, they already know the magnitude because you said "billion" right up front.

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    How did you get Jenny's number? I thought she was mine. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 14 '15 at 17:56
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    @KitZ.Fox I got her number on the wall – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 14 '15 at 17:59
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    Worth noting also that this varies with region and subculture. E.g. “two hundred fifty six” is markedly American: Brits and I think most other commonwealthers would have as “two hundred and fifty six” as the standard un-abbreviated form. – PLL Dec 14 '15 at 19:22
  • @PLL ah, yes, I'd forgotten that. I myself use both versions, with and without the and, as I'm Canadian and we mix and match US/UK differences. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 14 '15 at 20:51
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    @KitZ.Fox: He got Jenny Lenhart's number like this. – Vandermonde Dec 14 '15 at 22:33

It's not too common to say a number digit-by-digit in informal conversation. It's usually only used to emphasize each individual number, like in an address for example. However, it is fairly common to say just the hundreds digit of a three digit number. So, saying "two five six kilobytes" would be unusual, but saying "two fifty-six" would be OK in some contexts.


It is possible that in a loud environment you would say digit by digit in this context, especially over the phone where being succinct makes a huge difference, but you would probably abbreviate to "kay" for the bytes (or "gigs," etc.).


Postal codes, phone numbers, and similar numeric identifiers are usually spoken as digits. (One indicator that you should read them as digits is that zeroes, especially leading zeros, are significant.) For all other numbers, probably not.

Sometimes, it is helpful to read numbers digit by digit for clarity. For example, "fifteen" and "fifty" sound alike, so in aviation, such numbers are spoken as "one-five" and "five-zero", respectively; 1500 is "one-five-hundred".

But doing that in informal conversation? You would sound weird, and you probably wouldn't be understood. You could say it redundantly "fifteen (that's one-five)".

  • 1
    Actually, "fife" is the official pronunciation for 5 in aviation. – 200_success Dec 14 '15 at 18:42
  • The distinction here is that postal codes and phone numbers do not count anything. They are identifiers, just as if they were alphabetic (and in some countries are mixed alphanumeric). The more likely a number is used to count something, the less likely it is to be called out by digit (except when protocol requires for clarity: "Base, this is Outpost Charlie. I'm tracking three-zero inbound bogies...")/ – Monty Harder Dec 15 '15 at 0:00

Saying 'two hundred and fifty six' conveys the magnitude of the number for the listener to understand, while saying 'two five six' conveys the digits of the number for the listener to copy.

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