Numbers in Creative Writing

Book cover collage

When we think about writing numbers, we tend to think of research papers, financial reports, sports columns, and other quantity-laden nonfiction settings. But novelists and playwrights and poets also puzzle over how to style numbers. Some happily leave such matters to their copyeditors, while others spend valuable writing time out of a compulsion to get it “right.” If you’re the latter type (or their copyeditor), read on for comfort and advice.

Choose Your Style

It came to one hundred ten dollars.
It came to a hundred and ten dollars.
It came to $110.

I finished 165th; Srini finished third.
I finished one hundred sixty-fifth; Srini finished third.
I finished 165th; Srini finished 3rd.

“He said 15.0 mg of arsenic.”
“He said fifteen milligrams of arsenic.”
“He said fifteen point zero milligrams of arsenic.”
“He said fifteen point oh milligrams of arsenic.”

Money, rankings, quantities, street addresses, years and dates, time of day, phone numbers—all are common in fiction and other types of creative writing. How do copyeditors handle them?

The Chicago Way

In editing, “consistency” is practically a mantra. The trouble with writing numbers is that consistency isn’t always practical. In fact, the basic rules themselves demand a type of inconsistency, since they tell us to spell out some numbers (zero through one hundred, for starters) but not others (see CMOS 9.2). The reason? In writing, readability is more important than consistency.

That’s why flexibility in styling numbers is important. The general guidelines in The Chicago Manual of Style make this clear, both in the “Numbers” chapter at CMOS 9.7 and at CMOS 13.44, “Numerals in Direct Discourse.” The general idea is to break a style rule if it isn’t working well—a useful tenet for all writing.

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The CMOS chapter on numbers is relatively short and friendly even to noneditorial types. Reading through it will boost your confidence when it comes to styling numbers. Even just a skim of the chapter’s table of contents can give you an overview of issues to be aware of and a place to go when you’re stuck.

So when should you break the rules?

The Numbers Game

Here are just a few reasons for creative writers and their editors to break a style rule when writing numbers. (Note to technical writers: Stick around! The strategies for making style choices I suggest below are useful in any context, although your goals might dictate different choices.)

Informal phrasings

The first example at the top of this post reflects Chicago’s preference for omitting “and” from a spelled-out number (CMOS 9.5): “It came to one hundred ten dollars” (not “one hundred and ten dollars”). But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that the narration in a story or memoir or creative nonfiction piece has to follow Chicago style. Your narrator might more naturally say, for instance, “It came to a hundred and ten bucks.” This is especially true when a writer doesn’t mean to be exact: “I’ve seen it a hundred times.”

In other words, it’s fine to style a number so it suits your level of narrative formality.

Multiple large numbers

In a passage where several large numbers appear, spelling them out can befuddle: “Here’s what they stole: Monday was four hundred ten dollars, Tuesday was three fifty, and yesterday was seven hundred ninety.” Numerals might be more readable: “Here’s what they stole: Monday was $410, Tuesday was $350, and yesterday was $790.” Use the style that works best for your readers.

“Correct” stylings that look wrong

In any kind of writing, Chicago’s guidelines can produce the appearance of inconsistency when a spelled-out number lands close to a similar number expressed in numerals (I finished 165th; my friend finished third). In cases like that, it’s always an option to change the style of one number for the sake of regional consistency. In fact, CMOS recommends using the same styling (whether numerals or spelled-out words) for all the numbers in a given sentence or paragraph that refer to the same category of item (I ran with twenty-two coworkers and got 165th place; two of my coworkers tied for 9th).

A related problem: When two numbers styled the same but belonging to different categories land next to each other, the result is a bit blurry:

Mending it took twenty-four forty-eight-inch rods.
Mending it took 24 48-inch rods.

Breaking the rule for one of the numbers but not the other can help guide the reader’s eye:

Mending it took twenty-four 48-inch rods.
Mending it took 24 forty-eight-inch rods.

Dialogue

Occasionally writers to the CMOS Q&A insist that in order to be rendered as speech, an expression must be spelled out and that therefore numerals should not appear in dialogue. This makes a certain amount of sense. “Hand me my .22, Mavis!” may be the conventional way to write rifle calibers, but “Hand me my twenty-two, Mavis!” lets readers hear how it’s pronounced.

This kind of clarity is especially useful in dialogue that will be acted or read aloud (such as for an audiobook). What’s more, a writer’s choice of whether and how to spell out numbers and symbols can convey more or less personality in a speech.

“How much did he borrow?” I asked.
“It was $3,200,” she replied, “at 4.5 percent.” (neutral, ambiguous)
“It was thirty-two hundred bucks,” she replied, “at four and a half percent.” (informal)
“It was three thousand two hundred dollars,” she replied, “at four point five percent.” (formal)

Although it’s perfectly fine to write spoken numbers with numerals when conventional style rules would normally call for them, sometimes you want a reader to hear the number in a set way, and then it’s safer to make it clear with words regardless of what the stylebook says.

Important: Whenever you choose between spelled-out numbers and numerals, beware of information loss. Out of context, “twenty-two” doesn’t say “rifle” in the way “.22” does. And a dollar sign isn’t nearly as evocative as “bucks.”

Aesthetics

Creative writers may not have memorized the stylebook, but often they know what “looks” best to them, and they sometimes feel strongly about preserving their choices. Editors are no different: we have personal preferences in addition to concerns about legibility that extend beyond the merely aesthetic. If both parties in an editorial dust-up understand that flexibility is OK, the odds of ending up with something that works for the reader improve.

Consider the book covers in the image at the top of this page and you’ll see the same title spelled two ways in some instances. Obviously the publishing teams held diverging views on which style would better serve to catch a buyer’s eye. Even members of the same team can disagree: in a case that I was able to check online, the 2014 Engage Books edition of Twelve Years a Slave uses the numeral 12 in the title on the cover but spells out Twelve in the title on the copyright page. Graphic designers and marketers no doubt won the day on those cover designs. From experience I know this isn’t uncommon.

Another example: numerals that begin a sentence look weird to some writers and editors but don’t trouble others (a hunch my Twitter followers seemed to confirm). Chicago recommends spelling them out (see CMOS 9.5).

Ginny locked up and checked the receipts. One hundred twenty-five tickets were sold and none returned.
In 2008 his heart took a hit. Two thousand nine was even worse.

Associated Press agrees but makes an exception for years and expressions that combine numbers and letters, such as 401(k).

In 2008 his heart took a hit. 2009 was even worse.
Everything was lost. 401(k)s aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

Which do you prefer? To my eye, the second set might pass in a newspaper, but not in a novel, and the first set is pretty ugly too. To avoid a sentence that offends the eye, many copyeditors would reword or change the punctuation if possible (“In 2008 his heart took a hit; 2009 was even worse”).

Takeaway

Numbers should be easy to read! If that means broken rules or seeming inconsistencies, it’s for a good cause.


Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

Carol Saller

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Carol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

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6 thoughts on “Numbers in Creative Writing

  1. From a mathematic perspective, “It came to one hundred ten dollars,” is correct ($110.00)
    In the phrase “It came to one hundred and ten dollars,” is not the same thing. The word “and” denotes a decimal point. Therefore, one hundred and ten dollars is $100.10.

    • JulieW, thanks for your comment! Math isn’t my strongest suit, but I’m doubtful. If “$100.10” is reserved for “one hundred and ten dollars” as you suggest, I’m wondering how we would write “one hundred dollars and ten cents” in numerals. I suppose this is a good reason to use numerals for amounts like this so there’s no confusion.

  2. I agree. The statement in this article contradicts what CMOS itself says. It would only be “one hundred ten dollars” (a number greater than one hundred) in dialogue or for the sake of consistency.

  3. I’m confused by your statement that “It came to one hundred ten dollars” is Chicago’s preferred style. Sections 9.2 and 9.24 indicate your preferred style is “It came to $110.”

    • Suzy Bills, thank you for pointing this out, and I’m sorry to have caused confusion! I didn’t mean to suggest that spelling out is Chicago’s preference; rather, I meant that Chicago would prefer “one hundred ten dollars” if such a number were spelled out for any reason (as in dialogue). I have rephrased that line to clarify.

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