Stephen Wilbers: Know the rules for numbers

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2011 - 4:28 PM

Once upon a time a young person started a new job. On her 1st/first day of work she realized she would have to put some of her thoughts into writing. By the end of her 4th/fourth day, she was sending fifty/50 e-mail messages a day.

She soon realized that writing involved following certain rules and conventions, and that many of these rules and conventions were unknown to her. At least 8 or 9/eight or nine times a day, for example, she wondered if she should spell a number as a word or write it as a figure.

Not wanting to appear ignorant, she said to herself, "I'll just do what everyone else is doing." So she started watching for patterns.

9/Nine of her colleagues, she noted, spelled out numbers as the first words in sentences, but eleven/11 did not. 13/Thirteen wrote the day's date as July 28th, but 7/seven wrote it as July 28. And 5/five spelled out percentages, as in twenty-five percent, but fifteen/15 wrote percentages as figures, as in 25%.

She even noted that ten/10 of her colleagues repeated spelled-out numbers in parentheses, as in "You have three (3) days to fill out these seven (7) forms for your two (2) accounts," but that ten/10 did not. She wondered if repeating the numbers might have something to do with a custom dating back to the days before typewriters.

2/Two of her colleagues spelled out dollar amounts, as in nine thousand dollars, but eighteen/18 of them wrote dollar amounts as figures, as in $9,000. Of the eighteen/18 who wrote dollar amounts as figures, thirteen/13 did not use commas in four-digit figures, as in $1000, but 5/five did, as in $1,000.

She also noted that, of the eighteen/18 colleagues who wrote dollar amounts as figures, twelve/12 included the decimal and zeroes with even dollar amounts, as in $75.00, but 6/six did not, as in $75. Of the 6/six who did not, however, 4/four did include the decimal and zeroes when the even dollar amounts appeared in a series, as in $18.13, $16.00 and $17.95. She guessed they did so for consistency.

At the end of her first week she felt frustrated and confused.

"Maybe," she thought, "if I review the fifteen hundred/1,500/1500 e-mail messages I received this week, the patterns will become clear to me," and so she did.

Later that day her mentor suggested she use a style manual rather than try to imitate what her colleagues were doing.

"What's a style manual?" she asked.

"It's a book that explains the rules," her mentor said. "If you followed seven simple rules, you would know that, in all of the examples above, the second choice is correct."

"Where can I find a style manual?" she asked.


"Where can I find exercises to help me practice?"


Her second week was easier than her first.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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