NZE: How to write times and dates.
We all know the rhyme 1, 2, buckle my shoe. 3, 4, knock on the door.
Or should it be One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, knock on the door?
This article is about how to use numbers and numerals within formal and informal writing to make sure it is consistent and easy to read. These rules are not applicable to very technical or scientific writing, and in those cases the appropriate style guide should be referred to.
When using numbers in writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or business documents, the main issue is whether to spell out the number or whether to use figures, but there are some other rules and exceptions to consider.
To spell out or not to spell out
The first thing to consider is what kind of text you are writing and for what audience. The more figures, rather than spelled out numbers, the more technical the text appears. Sometimes the decision will be made with space restrictions in mind.
There is no set rule; there are just guidelines. But it is, as always, important to be consistent within the document.
For literary writing, it was traditionally preferred to spell out all numbers, but today is it acceptable for numbers one to ninety-nine to be spelled out and to use figures for numbers 100 and over, except in certain circumstances (see the rules and exceptions below).
For business writing, it depends on how technical your document is. A general rule of thumb is to spell out from one to nine and use figures for numbers 10 and over, again with the rules and exceptions below.
For websites it leans more towards business writing and figures are used more than words.
For technical writing, see your technical style guide.
Consistency within a paragraph
In a paragraph with numbers which sit within both ranges (either above and below 10, or above and below 100, as outlined above), be consistent with figures in that paragraph only. The rest of the document will continue to use the guidelines above.
However, when two groups of numbers are being used in the same sentence. It can help clarity to spell out one group and use numerals for the other.
Rules and Exceptions
Beginning of a sentence
A number should always be spelled out at the beginning of a sentence, or the sentence rewritten to avoid the figure at the beginning of the sentence. Figures should be used in the rest of the sentence.
Sentences with dates and long numbers with decimals would be better rewritten than spelled out.
A sentence starting with a number such as 2.154 should be rewritten.
In non-specialist text, use a comma to mark the thousands in numbers with four or more figures.
Check your style guide for scientific and technical texts.
For very large numbers, it’s preferable to write million or billion after the decimal to aid the reader.
For long numbers which include a decimal, use a thin space instead of commas.
Compound numbers use hyphens when spelled out.
In most forms of writing, with the exception of scientific or technical text and some specific style guides, it is preferred to insert a space between the numeral and the abbreviation of the unit of measurement. Though it's now also become accepted to close up the space in less formal texts.
When using symbols, it is always closed up.
Number ranges and elision
An en dash without spaces is used to show missing numbers (elision of numbers), for example with page numbers or years. However, don’t elide numbers in headings, or with vital information such as the years of birth and death.
Use the fewest figures possible without losing clarity.
If it’s not clear with one figure, add figures.
Don’t elide years that go across a century.
Write years BC in full for clarity.
When writing about a range of years, use from … to or during, not both.
With ranges which include a negative number, it’s better to use words rather than a dash.
If necessary for clarity and meaning, repeat the figures.
With a unit of measurement, don’t repeat the unit unless it’s usually closed up.
If a number is used approximately, then spell it out. If it is used precisely, use figures.
Numbers used indicatively should be spelled out.
Ordinal numbers are those that indicate a place in a series. First, second, third, fourth, etc.
Traditionally these were spelled out from first to ninety-ninth, but today it is more common to see them spelled out from first to ninth, and figures for numbers higher than that.
Superscripts for ordinals are no longer used in New Zealand English, though you will need to overrule Microsoft Word’s autocorrect to stop it.
Fractions are usually spelled out in writing, except in scientific or technical texts.
Fractions that are long and awkward when spelled out can be written as fractions in informal writing.
Hyphens in fractions are preferred, but can be left out.
Don’t use a hyphen between the whole number and the fraction.
If abbreviations or symbols are used, the number is always in figures, and fractions are shown as decimals.
Use figures for age.
But in informal writing, it is acceptable to spell it out.
When using ordinals or decades, spell it out.
Units of measurement
Spell out numbers with spelled out units of measurement, but figures can be used with abbreviated units of measurement or spelled out forms.
Money is usually shown with figures, but can be spelled out in informal text.
Larger amounts can be combined with symbols and words.
Cents use the symbol closed up.
Only add the .00 if needed in context.
Percentages are usually written as figures, regardless of whether you use the % symbol or write out per cent, or how high the number is.
Per cent and percent are both used, though per cent is preferred in British English and percent is preferred in US English.
There are some exceptions to the rules on when to spell out or use punctuation.
If you have written a book in New Zealand English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Hughes, J., & Wallace, D. (2010). Fit to Print : The Writing & Editing Style Guide for Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing.
Oxford University Press, (2016). New Oxford Style Manual (3rd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. Her business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction or non-fiction books. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website: www.clearlingo.co.nz.
New Zealand English Series
- NZE: How to use a semicolon
- NZE: The 'singular they'
- NZE: How to use italics
- NZE: How to write numbers
- NZE: How to write abbreviations
- NZE: How to punctuate dialogue
- NZE: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes
- NZE: How to write times and dates
- NZE: Possessives
- NZE: Is our spelling different?
- NZE: Burned vs Burnt
- NZE: Using Māori words in English text
- NZE: -ise vs -ize endings
- NZE: Single or double quote marks
- NZE: Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks?
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