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Numbers under ten should definitely be spelled out, but what about the case where your use of them indicates how they exist in the thing you are describing? For example: “I stepped into the elevator and pressed the button marked with a 3.” Should that be three? Because the number isn’t spelled out on the elevator button. Moreover, if the answer is that it should be 3, should the 3 be in single quotes?

(I realize there is a more elegant way to construct this sentence, but my question still stands.)

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    I think this "should" thing isn't so strong as you may think. – tchrist Jan 27 '18 at 1:47
  • I suppose I meant that in many contexts numbers under ten should be. I know that there are exceptions (scientific writing, etc). – Steph Jan 27 '18 at 1:51
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    In my own writing I quote from lexicon lists quite a lot and for the reader's sake I just write the numbers abc 327 times/ def 12 times. In long lists of data, within a written text, I think it is helpful to the reader. But, as you say, numbers up to, say, twenty which are quoted singly within a body of text, I would always write fully - twelve or whatever. – Nigel J Jan 27 '18 at 1:58
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I would leave it as "marked with a 3."

Putting quotes around the 3 would signify clearly that you are mentioning rather than using it, but would be overly fussy for my taste (and might even make some readers pause to consider if the quotes were on the bitton too). Less punctuation, including quote marks, is a welcome long term trend.

Writing out 'a three' is also mildly infelicitous since that provides the idea of what is on the button when the numeral 3 is more literal.

On the other hand, were the elevator a stylish one with words rather than numerals on the buttons then I would expect to see "marked with a 'Three.'"

  • I disagree on the desire to reduce punctuation, but I arrive at the same conclusion overall. – user173897 Jan 27 '18 at 2:49
  • Punctuation is always welcome when used sensibly; but I agree that overuse indeed has a deleterious effect, which often ruins communication. Unfortunately though, some people dispense with it entirely. – Bread Jan 31 '18 at 13:06

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