Talking Numbers: Some Style Guidelines

I found that when writing and talking in numbers, people tend to make several mistakes. I thought it a good idea to dispel some myths in this post.

Here are some examples of good use:

Five of my friends are coming tomorrow.
He is 14 years older than I am.
The telephone number of John is two oh three oh two one two.
"Wright brothers' flying machine was patented in nineteen oh six," the professor explained.

Numbers in Written Form

Don't begin a sentence with a number in figure form.

Wrong: 20 candidates were selected to go for the trip.
Correct: Thirty-three people in different academic levels were awarded.

If the number is a digit (less than ten), always spell it out:

I have three close friends.
Two of my cousins are in the US.
I gave out five of my books.

If the number is above nine, then you can either spell it out or use figures. But when spelling out numbers up to ninety-nine, don't forget that hyphen.

I wonder how she could run 20 kilometers none-stop.
Seventy-three members were killed in the bomb blasts as the initial reports arrived.
India became independent in nineteen forty-seven.

If you have two groups of numbers to talk about, use figures for one group and spell out those of the other.

Let's have 50 students in five groups in the first year, and 40 students each in six groups in the second year.

Talking About Years

When talking about years, follow this norm. If you have zero in the year, it's most appropriate to call it 'oh'.

1. When referring to years in spoken discourse, use oh: Examples:
1984: nineteen eighty-four
1099: ten ninety-nine
1900: nineteen hundred
2000: (year) two thousand
2009: two thousand (and) nine

Expressing Zero

  • When you give credit card number, train/air ticket number, etc., speak zero as the letter 'o'.
  • When talking about years, speak it as 'oh': seventeen oh five.
  • In scientific, mathematical, and technical situations, use 'naught' British English (BrE) and 'zero' in American English (AmE): The length of the rod is five point naught three centimeters.
  • In sports: in Tennis, express zero as 'love'. In other contexts, use 'nil'.
  • In programming context and to refer to technical nothingness, use 'null'.

Writing and Speaking Dates

To refer to a date, use any of the following in written: 6 August, 6th August, August 6th, August 6. Say it as "August sixth" or "the sixth of August". In AmE, August 6 or August 6th is considered standard.

Remember: 04/11 means November 4th in BrE and April 11th in AmE.

When expressing decades, either spell it out or prefix it with an apostrophe. Remember, the apostrophe is prefixed and not suffixed.

In the '90s, the most popular writer was John Grisham.
In the forties and fifties, Agatha Christie sold the most number of books.

Fractions and Decimals

1/2: A half
3 1/2: Three and a half
1/4: A quarter
3/4: Three quarters (three fourths)
4.5: Four point five
0.65: Naught (zero) point six five.

Speaking Phone Numbers

Speak phone numbers as a series with pause after each. Say zero as 'oh', and to express same digits in succession, use double and treble.

303303 20894: Three oh double three oh three two oh eight nine four
5666390: Five treble six three nine oh (five six double six three nine oh)

Names of Large Numbers

For large numbers, both AmE and BrE names seem to coincide. Here is a list:

100,000: One hundred thousand (in Indian context, call it a lakh or lac)
1000,000: One million
10,000,000: Ten million (in Indian context, it is a crore)
1000,000,000 (10^12): One billion
10^15: One quadrillion
10^18: One quintillion or trillion
10^21: sextillion
10^24: septillion
10^27: octillion
10^30: nonillion
10^33: decillion
10^36: undecillion
10^96: untrigintillion
10^99: duotrigintillion
10^100: googol (Google was misspelled version of this word)
10^10^100: googolplex (rhymes with Googleplex right)
10^10^10^100: googolplexplex

The full list here

Specialized Number Names

2: Express in sports context as 'a couple', 'a pair', etc.
6: Half a dozen
12: A dozen, noon or midnight (time of day)
50: Half century (in Cricket context)
100: century


I haven't covered everything about speaking and writing numbers. Please post your doubts and ideas in comments.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

1 Opinions:

  1. Telling the time also presents problems with numbers!
    Can I suggest regional and country variations are also important, particularly when they involve native English speakers. Like your example of large numbers used in India.

    I for example as an Englishman would use zero or nought when expressing "0" as a spoken number like giving someone my phone number.


Comments are moderated very strictly