TipSheet 1: Writing Numbers
Often when writing memos, letters and reports you need to refer to numbers. How do you do this? Should you use figures ('8'), words ('eight'), or a mixture of both?
The answer: it depends on the number, the context and the type of communication you are writing. The UN Correspondence Manual (pp. 38-39) gives detailed rules regarding numbers in everyday correspondence. In most technical and statistical communication, figures are used. Figures are also used for presenting a large amount of data in a report. In memos, letters and legal documents, a mixture of figures and words is used.
Here are the main rules you need to know for everyday writing of numbers:
1. Numbers under 10 should be written as words:
The report contains six sections.
The delegation visited four areas where rebel incursions had been reported in the previous two weeks.
2. All numbers should be written in words at the beginning of sentences:
Four hundred and fifty women were selected.
Sixty miles separates the two warring factions.
3. Fractions and ages should be written as words in non-technical, non-statistical texts:
Only two-thirds of the delegates voted.
This applies to everyone over the age of eighteen.
4. Numbers between 10 and 999,999 are normally written as figures:
The number of staff now stands at 1,417.
Although 69 people applied for the grant, only five were successful.
5. Percentages and ratios are always written as figures:
The budget increase for 2006 is projected to be 3 per cent.
The ratio of yields per hectare was 10:1.
Note: 'per cent' is used, not '%', except in statistical texts.
6. Results of elections and matches are written as figures:
The resolution was adopted by 15 votes to none, with 65 astentions.
The staff team lost the match 6-3.
7. Dates and times are written as figures:
On Thursday, 26 May 2005 at 10.30 am.
Note: dates in United Nations correspondence are always written in this form. Forms such as 26/05/05 are not used. Time is indicated as above (not 10:30). Twenty-four hour clock may be used (2100, not 21.00).
8. Numbers with fractions should be written as figures:
Costs were reduced by 10.75 per cent and profits almost doubled, increasing 1.75 times over the previous year.
9. Dimensions, weights and measures should be written as figures:
The container is 10.5" long, 6" wide and 3.2" deep. It weighs 1.2 kg.
10. Reference numbers are written as figures:
I am referring to chapter V, page 13, paragraph 2, in document A/54/1.
Note: for items 3-9, words are used if the number appears at the beginning of a sentence:
Two-thirds of the delegates voted.
11. Sums of money are written as figures:
The Committee was promised a relief sum of $20,000.
12. When indicating a number range, figures are used with either 'to' or a dash, and the unit given after the second item:
Salary increases across the region ranged from 3 to 4 per cent.
The shells landed 2 - 3 km from the village.
The increase in the number of children in the 8 - 15-year-old age group is marked.
He served in seven field offices from 1997 to 1999 (not 1997-99).
13. When giving high value number ranges, the unit is repeated to avoid any confusion:
The fund increased from $2 million to $4 million during the period.
14. When numbers are combined sometimes it is necessary to use words for one item to avoid confusion:
I ordered twenty 15-cent stamps.
I received 120 fifteen-cent stamps.
The raft was made of 12 ten-foot poles.
The class consisted of 30 seven-year-old children.
Note the hyphens used in these examples.
15. Figures are used if they are part of the name of a product type:
B-2 bomber, Airbus A340, Lockheed P-3 Orion, 7-11 stores. 5.5-inch calibre, 25-pounder.