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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Grammar School: Numbers

During our July Critique Session, the question of how to write numbers was discussed. This is one of those grammar topics that can, at least on the surface, seem a bit confusing, like the serial comma. But when you drill down and do the research, you can weed through the confusion and master number writing.

The general rule is when a number can be written in two words or less, spell it out. If greater than two words, write the number:

I have ninety-nine erasers in my antique-erasers collection.
My great-grandmother is one hundred years old.
There are seventeen children coming to Lucy's birthday party.
It should take me about six hours to read this 175-page book.

However if you have a series of numbers, aim for simplicity and consistency (spelling out all but 145 would be awkward, so keep it simple):

My lucky numbers are 12, 54, 97, and 145.

Rule exception - any number occuring at the beginning of a sentence is spelled out:

Seven hundred and thirty students attend my son's school.

It gets a little tricky with round numbers, but if you just remember all round numbers are spelled out, you should have it. Here is an excerpt from Grammar & Style at Your Fingertips by Lara M. Robbins:

If the number is larger than 101 but is a round number, then it would also be spelled out. A round number is a number ending with one or more zeros.
  • There were an estimated seven hundred fifty million people watching as Diana married Prince Charles.
  • There are already more than two thousand bookies taking bets on who will win the next Kentucky Derby.
RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER'S grammar, usage, and punctuation says that generally (the word "generally" lets you know there are some exceptions), most of the following are written in figure form: dates, decades, pages, dimensions, decimals, percentages, measures, statistical data, exact amounts of money ("When providing references to money in written dialogue or round numbers, spell out the dollar amount" - Lara M. Robbins), designations of time when followed by A.M. or P.M., and addresses. Here are the examples the book gives:

June 24, 1945
the 1920's
124 B.C.
p. 263
p. xxvi
2' X 4'
2.5 cm
23 percent
93 miles
4262 B Street

There are exceptions to these I just listed, so be sure to get a good grammar book with a thorough section on number writing. My favorite is Grammar and Style at Your Fingertips by Lara M. Robbins (link above). I do have this book as well at the Random House book I referenced above at all of our Critique Sessions.

Memorize the rules, and familiarize yourself with the exceptions to the rules, and you will have a solid grasp on number writing.

Keep in mind that technical, academic, and business writing as well as many magazines and newspapers follow a common rule of spelling out numbers from one through ten and using numerals for all others. If you purchase a grammar book, make sure it is not a grammar book geared toward business writing (The Gregg Reference Manual is one example) unless your writing falls into one of the categories I just listed. Currently, I am not aware of anyone in our writers' group who writes in any of these categories.

Post by: LWC Director Karen Aldridge. Visit her personal blog at
My Writing Loft.

Live it - Then Write About It

Two weeks ago, my kids and I disappeared deep into the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia for a week. In our log cabin in this remote part of West Virginia, there was no Internet or television, no cell phone access or landline telephone, and no air conditioning or microwave.

I love shedding off life's modern-day conveniences and getting cozy with nature - the bugs, the creatures that slither, the nocturnal explorers, the deer, the bears, the birds, the giant river turtles, and the frogs that are twice as big as my hand and whose sweet tunes lull me to sleep at night. I've always been a tomboy, and I still love exploring the forest floor for animal tracks, seeing how far a millipede can climb my bare arm, and catching (or trying to catch - I'm not as good at it now as I was when I was a kid) slimy frogs.

During this trip, I learned a few new things:
  • Spotting the twenty-third deer is equally as fascinating as spotting the first one.
  • Bear feces looks suprisingly similar to human feces.
  • Spiders and crickets will seek shelter in your toiletries case.
  • The mystery of the unexplainable loose dirt that keeps appearing in your bed will be solved on the last day when you realize you've been sharing your bed with a raccoon all week.
  • The lack of modern-day conveniences/distractions will bring out the best in seven- and five-year-old boys.
  • If your child has a loose front tooth, take him innertubing a few times. Hayden's tooth now rests somewhere in the Greenbrier River.
  • Kroger-bought pears taste fresher in the woods.
  • If you wake to the sounds of a curious bear in the middle of the night, when - if - you go back to sleep, it is inevitable that you will dream you are attacked by a bear.
  • Around day four, you'll start to wonder if anything major has happened in the world - like has our government been overthrown? Has California fallen into the ocean? Has the rapture occurred and I wasn't one of the selected? But then a deer and her fawn will leap by your cabin, and you'll decide it doesn't really matter what's going on in the crazy world outside these woods.

Last year, this same trip to West Virginia inspired me to write a short story called Death of a Whippoorwill. I received an honorable mention in the 2009 Silver Quill Short Fiction Contest for that story. I want to encourage you all to find a special place, at least once a year, where you can disappear from your distractions and absorb inspiration for your writing. Don't go with the plan to write; go with the plan to explore and observe and enjoy. Live it - then write about it. For me, getting as close to nature as possible seems to do the trick. For you, it may be something else, but whatever it is, make the effort to do it. Living it will flood you with ideas and inspire poignant messages through writing that shines.

To read more about my trip, click here to read "This Dark Night" on my personal blog.

- Post by: LWC Director Karen Aldridge. Visit her at My Writing Loft.