To write or to spell? That is the question!

One thing that we see a lot of confusion over is whether to write out numbers in numeral form or to spell them. Unfortunately, while there are a few basic rules to follow, there are several accepted methods of addressing this issue. The biggest thing to remember is that whatever form you choose to adopt — be consistent throughout your writing. 

Here are a few guidelines:

Typically, it is recommended to spell out numbers one through nine (just as I did here) and use numerals for the number 10 or greater (again, just as I did here). This is a simple rule to remember and should not get you into too much trouble. There are exceptions, however, and this is where things can get a little dicey. For instance, technically, I’ve already made an error in this paragraph.

You can mix and match numerals and spelling within the same sentence as long as you are consistent within a category. For example, using the old apples-to-apples comparison, if you are talking about two or more sets of apples in a sentence and one of those sets exceeds nine, you can choose to use numerals for all sets (even if you have a set that is nine or less). If, in the same sentence you are writing about sets of oranges (or cats or cows), you can choose to spell out the number of items if one of the sets happens to be a single digit. For example: “I gave each of the ten cows 11 apples, but only seven of the cows ate 3 apples each.” See how that works? The number of cows is spelled out and I chose numerals for the apples. However, it would not be correct to write: “The seven cows ate 21 apples.” Don’t mix and match in the same sentence if there is only one set per category. Whatever you choose, choose consistency.

To confuse things a bit more, always write out a number if it begins a sentence, for instance, “Twenty-one apples fell victim this afternoon to seven cows.” I would have spelled out twenty-one anyway to be consistent with the seven cows, but had I not quantified the cows and just said “a bunch of cows,” the beginning-of-a-sentence rule would have taken over. Remember to hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.

There are lots of rules and suggestions for writing out numbers, honestly, it can make your head spin. If you just remember the above guidelines, then you can look up individual situations as you come upon them.

For a more detailed look at the treatment of numbers, you can check out one of my favorite go-to sites — There is also a nice list there of the Rules for Writing Numbers.

Do you have any questions? Did you learn something new today? Be sure to leave all questions and comments in the comment section. We’ll get back to you shortly.

Bonus question: How many apples were left uneaten by the cows?