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Numbers in Fiction

January 13, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 25, 2013

We’ve got rules and standards for everything we include in our novels—how to start those novels, how to increase tension, how to introduce characters, how to format, what to include in dialogue, how to punctuate dialogue, what to exclude from the first chapter. And we have rules for numbers. Or maybe we should call all these rules conventions.

This article covers a few common specifics of using numbers and numerals in fiction. I’m just going to list the rules here, without much explanation, laying out those that you’ll typically make use of in a novel. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions. For the most part, you’ll want to stick to the standards to make the read smooth and easy for the reader and create consistency within the manuscript.

Yet we’re talking fiction here, not a treatise or dissertation or scientific finding. You have choices. And style choices sometimes get to stomp all over the rules. If you want to flout the rules, do so for a reason and do so consistently every time that same reason is applicable in the manuscript.

For a comprehensive list of the rules concerning numbers, check out the Chicago Manual of Style or another style guide.

______________________

General Rules

__ Spell out numbers from zero through one hundred. You could argue for zero through nine, as is recommended for AP style, but do note that the recommendations in the Associated Press Stylebook are primarily for newspaper and magazine writing. Some rules are different for fiction.

You could also make a style choice to spell out almost all numbers, even if that conflicts with this and other rules.

Use numerals for most numbers beyond one hundred. While this is the standard, there are definitely exceptions to this one.

The witch offered Snow White one crisp, dewy apple.

Bobby Sue sang thirty-two songs before her voice gave out.

The rock-a-thon lasted for just over 113 hours.

The witch offered Snow White 1 crisp, dewy apple. Incorrect

__ Spell out these same numbers (0-100) even if they’re followed by hundred or thousand. (Your characters may have reason to say or think all manner of odd numbers, so yes, zero thousand might come up, even though this isn’t a common usage in our 3-D lives.)

The forces at Wilmington were bolstered by the arrival of ten thousand fresh soldiers.

The knight had died four hundred years earlier.

But—The knight had died 418 years earlier.

“How many thousands of lies have you told?”
“I’ve told zero thousand, you fool.”

__ Spell out ordinal numbers through one hundred as well—even for military units and street names. Ordinal numbers are often used to show relationship and rank.

We’d write the Eighty-second Airborne Division but the 101st Airborne Division. (Newspapers and military publications may have different conventions.)

A restaurant would be on Fifth Avenue, not 5th Avenue. Or the restaurant is on 129th Street, not One hundred and twenty-ninth Street.

A quick guide to ordinals—

no ordinal for zero      twentieth
first                            twenty-first
second                        twenty-second
third                           and so on . . .
fourth
fifth*
sixth                           thirtieth (thirty-first, thirty-second, and so on)
seventh                       fortieth
eighth                         fiftieth
ninth                           sixtieth
tenth                          seventieth
eleventh                     eightieth
twelfth                       ninetieth
thirteenth
fourteenth                                               one hundredth
fifteenth*                                                 one thousandth
sixteenth                                                  one millionth
seventeenth
eighteenth
nineteenth

The only odd ordinals are those using fives—fifth and fifteenth. Note the letter D in both hundredth and thousandth.

__ Use full-size letters, not superscript, to mark ordinal numbers (st, nd, rd, th) written as numerals.

__ Use first, second, third and so on rather than firstly, secondly, thirdly unless your character would use this odd construction as part of her style.

__ Spell out numbers that start a sentence. If spelling creates something awkward, rewrite.

One hundred and fifteen [not 115] waiters applied for the job.

__ Hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. Do this when the number is used alone and when used in combination with other numbers.

Louise owned forty-one cars.

“I heard she owned one hundred and thirty-five diamond rings.”

__ For an easier read, when numbers are written side by side, write one as a numeral and the other as a word.

He made 5 one-hundred-pound cakes.

We lashed 3 six-foot ladders together.

__ Spell out simple fractions and hyphenate them.

He took only one-half of yesterday’s vote.

He needed a two-thirds majority to win the election.

__ For the most part, treat large numbers, made large by being paired with the words million, billion, and so on, just as you would other numbers.

Some nine [not greater than one hundred, so spelled out] million years ago, the inhabitants of Ekron migrated to our solar system.

The family had collected the pennies, 433 [greater than one hundred] million of them, over eighty years.

But for large numbers with decimals, even if the number is less than 101, use the numeral version.

The team needed 10.5 million signatures for their petition.

Yet since we want to hear the words, you could just as easily write—

The team needed ten and a half million signatures for their petition.

This last example works both for narration and dialogue. But for dialogue you could also write—

“The team needed ten point five million.”

__ Use words rather than symbols and abbreviations in dialogue and in most narrative. Symbols are a visual representation, but characters need to think and speak the words.

Use the words rather than the symbols for degree (°) and percent (%) and number (#), both in dialogue and narrative. Use the word dollar rather than the dollar sign ($) in dialogue. Do not abbreviate the words pounds or ounces, feet or inches (or yards), hours or minutes or seconds, or miles per hour (or similar words) in dialogue or narrative.

An exception might include something like stretches of text where you note the changing speeds of a car but don’t want to repeat miles per hour again and again. Your use of mph becomes a style choice.

You might find other exceptions in headers and chapter titles. You can, of course, use symbols in titles and headers if you want to. For example, in geo-political thrillers, stories that jump all over the world and back again, headers might show longitude and latitude and the degree symbol would come in handy.

If you do include full compass coordinates in the narrative, using numerals and the symbols for degrees, minutes, and seconds might be the best choice in terms of clarity and ease of reading.

“But I don’t have a million dollars.”

“Nobody gave a hundred percent.”

“The baby weighed seven pounds eleven ounces.”

“It’s fourteen degrees out there!”

The # of crimes he’d committed kept rising. Incorrect

The chasm looked at least 40 ft. wide. Incorrect

The roadster crept along at no more than 28 mph. Incorrect

Note: You’re writing fiction. Think flow in the visuals as well as in the words. What will make sense to the reader and keep him from tripping over your style choices?

Time

__ Use numerals when you include a.m. and p.m., but you don’t have to use a.m. and p.m.

It was 5:43 a.m. when he got me out of bed. Correct

It was five forty-three a.m. Incorrect

__ Use lower case letters with periods or small caps without periods for a.m. and p.m.

__ Include a space between the numbers and a.m. or p.m., but no space within a.m. or p.m.

__ Spell out numbers when you include o’clock.

But he did wait until after five o’clock to call.

__ Use numerals to emphasize exact times, except in dialogue.

She pointed out that it was still 5:43 in the morning.

“It’s four forty-three.” She looked out into the darkness. “In the morning!”

The robbery took place at 2:22 a.m.

__ Spell out words for the hour, quarter, and half hours.

The hall clock was wrong; it showed eight thirty. No, it showed eight forty-five.

__ Do not use a hyphen to join hours and minutes. I have seen advice on several Internet sites that says you do use a hyphen in such cases, except when the rest of the number is already hyphenated.  So they’d have you write two-twenty but two twenty-five. This doesn’t make much sense, although there may be a style guide out there recommending such punctuation (and may provide a valid reason for it). The Chicago Manual of Style, however, does not use a hyphen (see 9.38 in the sixteenth edition). Their example is “We will resume at ten thirty.”

It was four-forty-five. Incorrect

It was four forty-five. Correct

The bomb went off at eleven-thirty. Incorrect

The bomb went off at eleven thirty. Correct

__ While we normally would never use both o’clock and a.m. or p.m. and typically don’t use o’clock with anything other than the hour, fiction has needs other writing doesn’t. The following might very well come out of a character’s mouth or thoughts—

It was five o’clock in the a.m.

“Mommy, it it four thirty o’clock yet?

Dates

__ Dates can be written a number of ways. The twenty-fifth of December, December 25, December 25, 2015, or the twenty-fifth are all valid ways of referring to the same day.

December 25th and December 25th, 2015 are incorrect. Do not use ordinal numbers for dates that include month, or month and year, written in this format. You can, however, write the twenty-fifth of December.

December 25 and December 25, 2015 would both be prounounced as the ordinal, even though the th is not written.

The exception is in dialogue.

“Your kids can’t wait for December twenty-fifth.”

__ Do not use a hyphen (actually, this in an en dash) for a range of dates that begins with the words from or between. (This rule is true of all numbers, not just dates, arranged this way.) Use the words to, through, or until with from, and and with between.

He planned to be out of town from August 15-September 5. Incorrect.

He planned to be out of town from August 15 to September 5. Correct

He planned to be out of town between August 15-September 5. Incorrect

He planned to be out of town between August 15 and September 5. Correct

He planned to be out of town August 15-September 5. Correct

__ Decades can be written as words or numbers (four- or two-digit years). Unless it’s in reference to a named era or age—the Roaring Twenties—do not capitalize the decade.

The cars from the thirties are more than classics.

Cars of the 1930s were my dad’s favorites.

The teacher played songs from the ’60s and ’70s to get the crowd in the right mood. (The punctuation is an apostrophe, not an opening quotation mark.)

__ There is no apostrophe between the year and the letter S except for a possessive.

The doctor gave up smoking back in the 1980’s. Incorrect

The doctor gave up smoking back in the 1980s. Correct

The doctor gave up smoking back in the ’80’s. Incorrect

The doctor gave up smoking back in the ’80s. Correct

BUT—She was decked out in cute 1950’s clothes, but the haircut was atrocious. Correct

__ Spell out century references.

He wanted to know if it happened in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century. When the guide reminded him it was the seventeen hundreds, he was even more confused.

__ Adding mid to date terms can be confusing. The general rule is that mid, as a prefix, does not get a hyphen. So midyear, midcentury, midterm, midmonth, and midthirties are all correct. (The same rules apply for other prefixes, such as pre or post, that can be used with date words.)

There are, however, exceptions—

Include a hyphen before a capital letter. Thus, mid-October.

Include a hyphen before a numeral. Thus, mid-1880s.

Include a hyphen before compounds (hyphenated or open). Thus, mid-nineteenth century and mid-fourteenth-century lore.

Note: The Chicago Manual of Style has a wonderful and comprehensive section on hyphenating words. I recommend it without reservation.

Dialogue

__ Spell out numbers in dialogue. When a character speaks, the reader should hear what he says. And although a traditional rule tells us not to use and with whole numbers that are spelled out, keep your character in mind. Many people add the and in both words and thoughts. Once again, the rules are different for fiction.

“I collect candlesticks. At last count I had more than a hundred and forty.”

“At last count I had more than one forty.”

“She gave her all, 24/7.” Incorrect

“She gave her all, twenty-four seven.” Correct

One exception to this rule is four-digit years. You can spell out years, and you’d definitely want to if your character has an unusual pronunciation of them. But you could use numerals.

“He told me the property passed out of the family in 1942.”

“I thought it was fifty-two?”

A second exception would be for a confusing number or a long series of numbers. Again, if you want readers to hear the character saying the number, spell it out. Even common numbers might be spoken differently. One character might say eleven hundred dollars while another says one thousand one hundred dollars.

If you have to include a full telephone number—because something about the digits is vital—use numerals, even in dialogue. (But if you want to emphasize the way the numbers are spoken, spell out the numbers.)

You’d use numerals rather than words because writing seven or ten words for the numbers would be cumbersome. But most of the time there is no reason to write out a full phone number.

__ Write product and brand names and titles as they are spelled, even if they contain numbers—7-Eleven, Super 8 hotels, 7UP.

Heights

__ Heights can be written in a variety of ways.

He was six feet two inches tall.

He was six feet two.

He was six foot two.

He was six two.

He was six-two. (a recommendation from some sources, although not one I’d make)

Money

__ Do not hyphenate dollar amounts except for the numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine that require them. Don’t use a hyphen between the number and the word dollars (except as noted below). Note the absence of commas.

two dollars

twenty-two dollars

two hundred dollars

two hundred twenty-two dollars or two hundred and twenty-two dollars

two thousand two hundred and two dollars

But

a two-dollar bill

a twenty-dollar fine

a two-hundred-dollar fine

a two-hundred-and-twenty-two-dollar fine

Punctuation

__ No commas or hyphens between hours and minutes, feet and inches, pounds and ounces, and dollars and cents that are spelled out. If the meaning is unclear, rewrite.

Ben promised to be there at four thirty, but it was six twenty when he pulled into the driveway.

At seven feet three inches, he was the shortest of the Marchesa giants.

The piece of salmon weighed one pound eleven ounces, but they charged the rude customer the price for three pounds.

He owed his boss forty-two fifty.

He owed his boss forty-two dollars and fifty cents.

__ Use hyphens for compound adjectives containing numbers the same way other compound are created. They are almost always hyphenated as an adjective before the noun and as a noun.

A two-inch hole in the street became a six-by-six-foot crater.

My two-year-old loves puppies.

My son has a two-year-old puppy.

ButMy puppy is two years old.

__ No hyphen between numbers and percent.

The drink was only 60 percent beer. The rest was water. Correct

The drink was 20-percent beer. Incorrect

__ For multiple hyphenated numbers sharing a noun, include a hyphen and a space after the first number and hyphenate the last as usual.

Our Johnny couldn’t wait to tell us about the ten- and twenty-foot-tall monsters in the yard.

His sister shared details about the two- and three-headed versions that lived under her bed.

__ For the words half and quarter, use the hyphen for adjectives but not for noun forms. (Some words with half are closed compounds—halfway, halfwit—so check the dictionary.)

“Join me in a quarter hour or join me in a half hour; it’s your choice.”

Join me half an hour from now.

The half-price items were poorly made.

__ For compound words made with odd, always use a hyphen.

Thirty-odd hours later, my son finally returned home.

He’d saved some 150-odd comic books.

__ For numerals greater than 1,000, include commas after every three digits from the right (for American English). For fiction, it’s likely you’ll often round off these numbers and/or write the numbers as words, but the rule is good to know.

1,000

10,525

10,525.78

953,098,099

__ For dollar amounts written as numerals, use the period to separate dollars and cents, and include the dollar sign. But you could spell out the amount, especially if you’re rounding the number.

He needed $159.75 for the bar tab.

He needed a hundred and sixty dollars for the bar tab.

You may have been advised to always write one hundred rather than a hundred, but for fiction, we want to reflect a character’s words and style.

__ Do not add a period if a.m. or p.m. comes at the end of a sentence. Do use a comma midsentence if that is necessary.

The fire alarm was pulled at 11:58 a.m.. Incorrect

The fire alarm was pulled at 11:58 a.m. Correct

The alarm was pulled at 11:58 a.m., just before lunch. Correct

Weapons and Guns

For the most part, stick with the rules governing numbers when you write about weapons. A publisher’s style guide may overrule your choices, but you’ll want consistency either way. Keep in mind your speaker’s or viewpoint character’s familiarity with weapons. One character might know every detail about a weapon while another calls every weapon a gun.

Use only the necessary detail. For example, in fiction you might not often have cause to write The AH-64D Apache Longbow was the team’s first choice. Instead, you might write, The Longbow was the the team’s first choice. Yet before this moment in the story, you might have needed to list the equipment available to them, writing out the full name of several helicopters.

__ In both narrative and dialogue, if you use the name of the gun or ammo, spell it as the manufacturer does, including numerals and capital letters. Do the same for military weapons and tanks. Spell out the word caliber.

If you don’t use the full name, still capitalize brands and manufacturers. The designation mm is accepted in narrative.

He eyed the .357 Magnum in the loser’s shaky hand.

Anderson’s Colt .38 was under his pillow, two rooms away.

Both the Browning 9mm, his favorite, and his stacked salami sub, another favorite, were destroyed by the car crusher.

I knew she lied when she told me the M1 Abrams had been named after her father; she was much too young.

__ In dialogue, if the character is saying a variation of the name but not the name itself, you have options. Use words when doing so isn’t convoluted or cumbersome or unclear.

“Dirty Harry used a forty-four, not a three fifty-seven.”

“How would I know? Thirty aught six, thirty aught seven. What’s the difference anyway?”
Deke back-whistled through his teeth. “You’ve never even picked up a rifle, have you?”

“What was it? A nine millimeter?”
“A Glock 17 Compensated. New and shiny.”

Contradictory Rules

If you’ve got rules that conflict, you have a few options.

Rewrite.

Choose the option that gives clarity to the reader.

Remember that in fiction, words can almost always be substituted for numerals. When in doubt, write it out. Yeah, corny and elementary, I know. But it’s advice that’s easy to remember.

 ______________________

Keep in mind that characters don’t all speak or think the same way, with the same words. Let your choices reflect your characters and not only the rules. That is, sometimes the rules are less important than the way the characters express themselves.

As an example, the rules (for American English, not British English) tell us not to write years in this manner—fourteen hundred and ninety-two, with the and. But your character just may think or say a date with the and. Be true to his voice and style.

And be consistent. Create a style sheet and stick with it. Know what choice you made for your numbers in chapter six and do the same in chapter fifteen.

Fiction is different from other writing styles. We use words rather than symbols, abbreviations, and images. If you’re unsure, spell out the numbers. Put it in words.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation, How to

67 Responses to “Numbers in Fiction”

  1. Nick says:

    Truly a wealthy of outstanding information! What about weapon terminology, such as 9mm, 38 caliber, 50 caliber, etc?

  2. Angel King says:

    What a timely post! Last night I wrote a character saying she’d been called away at “one am.” I knew it wasn’t right, but didn’t know what was. Thanks, Beth!

  3. Nick, weapon references were on my list, and I simply ran out of time, wanting to get this article up. I will add those within the next day or two.

    If anyone has other categories they’d like to see here, let me know.

    • How would you write out dimensions? The house was 14′ by 16′ or 14-by-16 feet or 14 feet wide by 16 feet long, or fourteen feet wide by sixteen feet long? Also can you say I was born the 24 of February, 1930?

  4. I’m glad the info was timely, Angel.

    I was editing last night, just after having posted this, and ran into a couple of number references in the manuscript that I hadn’t included here. I guess we can all use info on number rules.

  5. This was very helpful, I even bookmarked it. Thanks.

  6. Jeri says:

    I can see this post becoming my new go to for needed information on numbers. Thanks so much!

  7. Amandah says:

    Thank your for this comprehensive post. I copied and pasted into Evernote.

    When I finish writing a magazine article or blog post, I have to remember that numbers are not written the same way in fiction and non-fiction books. Thank God I have a developmental editor who caught my faux pas on my latest book.

  8. Amandah, it’s good to have that extra eye looking at our words; it can be odd when you move between the two styles. I’m guessing that sometimes it can take a few pages or paragraphs to get into the right flow when you change styles. The good thing is that we can always edit.

  9. This is amazing: such a great and detailed reference. It’s interesting to see all the complex rules modern English has for writing down things as simple as numbers… crazy, crazy language. *linguaphile happy dance*

  10. We do have some list of rules, don’t we, Humour? But if they help us communicate, I’m all for them. And if they help readers get lost in a fictional world, I welcome them with enthusiasm. It’s just keeping up with them that’s tedious. Gathering them in one spot seemed a good idea.

  11. Serena Tatti says:

    I have not only bookmarked this page, but I have also printed it out. Having all this information in one place is marvelous and a useful reference. I am about to share it on all the loops. Thanks!

  12. Serena, thanks for passing the info on. I’m glad it’s been useful.

  13. Thanks for this precise article that answered many of my questions about numbers and times in fictional works. This was extremely helpful. I’ll be referring back to this blog whenever I have new questions about my writing. I want my novel, Amethyst, to the best it can be.

    Stephanie M. Jandreau

  14. Stephanie, we all use numbers in our fiction, so I thought this would be a good reference for all of us. Thanks for letting me know it was useful. And here’s to Amethyst—may it exceed your expectations.

  15. Tink says:

    Love this article.

    How would you handle room numbers or berth numbers on a ship or hotel when in dialogue your characters talk about them, and then later in the narrative you refer to them.

    Example: “It is time for Berths forty-four through fifty-four to disembark.” (dialogue spoken by the ship’s steward)
    Or
    While my friend got to know his bunk mates, I went to Room 3 to visit my girlfriend.

  16. Tink, you’ve asked a great question. (I’ll need to update the article to add this information.)

    Numbers used for identification—for rooms, floors, buildings, TV channels, dorms, interstates/routes, districts, versions, episodes, sessions, seasons, and the like—are normally written as numerals. Thus Building 17, Room 415, Lassiter 122 [dorm room], Route 66, and Channel 12. These become names, of a sort.

    So does the rule for writing out numbers in dialogue trump this rule? You could argue that it might, at least in some cases. I’d advise writing Route 66 in dialogue, but for Berths 44-54? You probably have leeway. Most people aren’t going to consider a berth number a name the same way they’d consider Route 66 or Channel 4 a name. The same would be true for rooms and floors.

    You could argue for spelling out some of these—berths, rooms, floors, buildings, districts, and even versions—in dialogue (as a style choice) if you like the way the spelling looks and especially if you’re using multiples of them. When you’re not treating them as names, you also wouldn’t capitalize them. So—

    “What were you doing?”

    “Checking out rooms three through five.”

    AND

    “Taking the device apart invalidates the warranty on versions two, five, and six. But you can get a replacement for three and four.”

    BUT

    “He pulled onto Route 1, and I lost him.”

    “I know. Channel 5 showed the whole thing.”

    You could stick firmly to the dialogue rule about using numerals for names containing numerals or you could spell out the words as a style choice, arguing that these aren’t really names. You will want to be consistent, not necessarily for the identification category as a whole, but at least for your exceptions.

    So if you decided that only TV channels and route numbers had to adhere to the rule but that all others could be written out as words, that would be a valid choice. (A publisher might have their own rules regarding the issue, but any change could be made easily.) There is no wrong choice here that would prevent an agent or editor from accepting the manuscript.

    I hope that helps.

    Also, I know you were just writing a quick example, but unless the room number itself is important, consider not even mentioning it. While my friend got to know his bunk mates, I went to Jenny’s room.

  17. Maggie says:

    This is a fabulous article and one I’ve referred back to again and again. I am confused, however, in regards to the rules on times. Would you mind clarifying this one for me?

    I know that in narrative, exact times used with a.m./p.m. should take the numeral form (It was 9:30 a.m. when Cindy rolled into the office parking lot). What form should you use, though, when the text uses “morning” instead of “a.m.?” For example: Her cellphone said it was 9:30 Sunday morning. In that example, would you use numerals or spell out the time (It was nine thirty Sunday morning).

    How about in dialogue? When an exact time with a.m./p.m. is used, do you spell it out? (“The train leaves at 2:00 p.m.,” he answered.”)

    Thank you for your help!

  18. Great questions, Maggie.

    In narrative, only use numerals when you use a.m. and p.m. or when you’re emphasizing the exact minute, and only use a.m. and p.m. when you have to, when you want to emphasize the minute—something such as 9:23 a.m. For the hour, quarter, and half hours, spell them out—it was nine (or it was nine o’clock), it was nine fifteen, it was nine thirty. For your example, it was nine thirty Sunday morning. I’d even say spell out times such as nine twenty and nine forty.

    For dialogue, write out the number. “The train leaves at two p.m.,” he answered.

    Of course, not many people use a.m. and p.m. when they say the time or when they think it, so you’d be safe, most of the time, not mentioning them at all.

    Thanks for the questions.

  19. This was exactly what I was wanted. Thank you for being so thorough. I flip between fiction and non-fiction, and things like numbers can get confusing.

  20. Corinne says:

    What a wonderful tool! Thank you so much for posting this. I do have a question about starting dialogue with a street number. For example, a cab driver asks a passenger where he is going and the answer is simply, “568 West Broadway.” Should 568 be written out in words? Thanks, Beth!

  21. Corinne, sentences should never begin with numerals. Rewrite to avoid putting them in the sentence opening.

    Since this is dialogue and we spell out most numbers in dialogue anyway, simply spell out the number—“Five sixty-eight West Broadway.” You could do the same for text that’s not dialogue, or you can try other options—

    Where was that place? Ah, 568 West Broadway.

    The address was 568 West Broadway.

    The taxi stopped on West Broadway—568 West Broadway.

    There are lots of ways to get around writing numbers at the beginnings of sentences.

  22. Great resource. Thanks!

    I have a question about heights used as adjectives: his six-foot two-inch frame; his six-foot, two-inch frame; his six-foot-two-inch frame; or his 6’2″ frame. This is in narrative, not dialog.

    I know I could rewrite to avoid the problem, but I’m editing someone else’s work and trying to be as respectful as possible.

    • Sue Ann, keep to the general rule, which is to spell out numbers less than 101. So that would do away with your last option.

      Use the option with all the words connected by hyphens—his six-foot-two-inch frame. The height is a single modifier.

      Are you proofreading or editing? If you’re editing rather than proofreading, do suggest a rewording. Not for this issue necessarily, but because referring to people’s frames is not typically what most people do. The story setting (era) may allow for such a word, of course. But if this is a contemporary story, frame might not be the best word. There’s nothing wrong with asking whether or not a character would use a certain word. We typically talk about people’s bodies and not their frames. At least most of the time. Frame is a word we often find in fiction rather than in real life, but if it doesn’t fit a character, a rewording would be useful.

      Of course, it may be a fitting word. It’s just something to consider.

      If you are proofreading rather than editing, you definitely wouldn’t need to make any suggestion regarding rewording.

      A good question—thanks for bringing it up.

  23. This information is absolutely invaluable! I bookmarked it immediately.

    I do have a question for you though. How would you treat the name of a highway in dialogue? For example, U.S. Highway 77?

    Warmly,
    Janna

    • A good question, Janna. Look back about 10 comments before yours and you’ll find a discussion of numbers used for identification. (Tink asked about the same kind of thing.) The short answer is that since a highway number is part of the highway’s name, you can use the numeral in dialogue. But you do have some leeway.

  24. Louis K says:

    How do you put the sound “Oh” into dialogue when you mean the numeral 0 such as in “0600”? Would you write “0 six hundred” or “Oh six hundred”? I can’t substitute zero because that’s not how it is said in the real world.

  25. Hi, I was looking for an example of two things. Military time like
    01100 and Latitude and Longitude.

    I’m using this as a sub-header under my chapter title.
    01100 hours
    El Lianos, Honduras
    60 N 13′ and 30 W 15′

    • Evelyn, I’m glad you’re finding the articles useful. As for your questions of military time and latitude and longitude—

      There are a couple of concerns for military time. For one, know whether you want local time or Zulu time. Local time is the time where the event is taking place. For writers, that would be the time in the scene’s setting. If military units or different groups in different time zones need to synchronize events and need to convey time in a way that makes sense to all, use Zulu time. That’s the same time the world used to refer to as Greenwich Mean Time. We now use coordinated universal time (UTC), very close to GMT.

      To show zulu time rather than local time, add a Z to the 24-hour time—1100Z or 2330Z.

      Also, keep in mind that there are no punctuation marks between the hours and the minutes.

      And remember that you don’t need the 0 before numbers after 0959. So once the time changes to 1000 (10 a.m.), there is no leading zero. I’m not sure if there was a typo in your example, but that first 0 is unnecessary.

      As for latitude and longitude, there are several ways to write such information in a scene or chapter header.

      ~ Latitude always comes first.

      ~ We typically use a comma between latitude and longitude, though it’s not a requirement.

      ~ Put the designations for north or south, east or west, either before or after the numbers, but not between. So in your example, N 60° 13′, W 30° 15′ or 60° 13′ N, 30° 15′ W.

      ~ You can include degrees, minutes and seconds or just degrees and minutes (as you have done), or just degrees.

      There are a couple other options, but for fiction, these should be sufficient.

      A great question. Thanks for the reminder.

  26. Hi, I hit return before saying thanks. You posts on grammar are fantastic. Thanks for helping.
    Evelyn

  27. Z says:

    I REALLY appreciate this post. I bookmarked it and will be back to read more of your blog!

  28. Mike says:

    I say commas are optional before and after the speech tags here. I’ve omitted them in the first three examples below. This okay?

    “The typical suburban home is easy to leave behind as its occupants move to another” he argues.

    “We need to remove his privileges” she writes.

    She writes “We need to remove his privileges.”

    But commas must be used when a quotation is cut in half, agreed?

    “Mike,” he said, “do you know how to find her?”

  29. Serena says:

    Hi Mike,

    Sorry but this doesn’t work for me. I also wouldn’t use *he argues* as a speech tag, but then I am a *speech tag purist*. I suggest you should use actions to let us know that *he* is *arguing* the case.

    As she isn’t actually speaking the words, I suggest you find a way to let us realize they are written words. I’ve seen it done a few ways. Here’s one:

    She writes — We need to remove his privileges. (The latter should be in italics)

    Yes, definitely the commas are needed in the above sentence.

    BTW In that final example, you could also use an action tag instead of the speech tag:

    “Mike,” he turned to the other man, “do you know how to find her?”

    One of the lovely little nuances of the English language and punctuation.

  30. Good questions, Mike. And Serena pointed out some issues that I’d also point out.

    You always need a comma either before or after a dialogue tag to separate it from the spoken words themselves. It’s the same as including a terminal punctuation mark (period or question mark) at the end of a sentence—the punctuation serves as a marker. So—

    He looked at me and said, “This is the last time I’ll come running.”

    “This is the last time I’ll come running,” he said.

    As for he argues, as Serena pointed out, some don’t accept such words as dialogue tags, though others do. And some genres accept a wider variety of verbs as dialogue tags than do others. But at its most basic, argue is an action, not a tag. The dialogue tag is a marker to show who is speaking; its purpose is not to show how that dialogue is delivered. Again, there is leeway. But be sure to only use words that people can speak through. Humans can’t smile or laugh dialogue.

    As for she writes, it’s obviously not pointing out spoken words. As Serena said, you can use italics, or you could reword slightly. Could you use quotation marks? Sure, plenty of writers do. But consistency would say that you restrict quotation marks for spoken words. Yet, once again there is leeway.

    She writes We need to remove his privileges. (The comma after writes can be argued for or against. Or you could use a colon or a dash.)

    She writes that we need to remove his privileges.

    —————

    Serena, the way we’d typically write a line of dialogue interrupted by an action—if there is no dialogue tag—would be:

    “Mike”—he turned to the other man—“do you know how to find her?”

    With a dialogue tag, we get the commas back—

    “Mike,” he said, turning to the other man, “do you know how to find her?”

    See the article Punctuation in Dialogue for more tips.

    Thanks to you both for adding to the discussion.

    • Mike says:

      For written dialogue, would you concur that the numeric figures within the quotations below are punctuated correctly? Could you please point out any existing errors in terms of punctuation, and show me how they’re correctly punctuated? I thank you so much!

      To make this easy to see, I (Beth) am editing Mike’s comment to provide the answers.

      (1) Mike said, “The team needed ten point five million.” [No hyphens because 'ten point five million' isn't modifying anything. Good as is?] B—Correct

      (2) Mike said, “The team needed ten-point-five-million dollars.” [Hyphenate because 'ten-point-five' is modifying dollars, correct?] B—Incorrect. Dollar amounts that do not modify other words do not need to be hyphenated. Actually, any simple count of something—two hundred and fifty bottles of wine—is not hyphenated. Only when another word is added to the number compound is the entire compound hyphenated. The following example would by hyphenated—The crook presented the cashier with a two-hundred-dollar bill.

      (3) Mike said, “The figures represented a ten-point-five-million-dollar-a-year increase in revenues.” [Hyphenated because 'ten-point-five-million-dollar-a-year' is modifying 'increase'. Good?] B—Correct

      (4) “Mike said, “The figures represented a ten-point-five-percent increase.” [Hyphenated because 'ten-point-five-percent' is modifying 'increase', correct?] B—Incorrect. According to CMOS, percent—whether used in the noun or adjective form—is always open. Though I would guess you could argue for hyphens as a style choice.

      (5) Mike said, “The figures represented a ten-point-five-percent-a-year increase.” [Hyphenated because 'ten-point-five-percent-a-year' is modifying 'increase', yes?] B—As with #4, CMOS might say no hyphens, though I personally might go with hyphens here.

      (6) Joe said, “She displayed one-hundred-and-ten-percent commitment.” [Hyphenated because 'one-hundred-and-ten-percent' modifies 'commitment'.] B—Incorrect for the same reason as #4.

      (7) Dave said, “I’ll give it one hundred and ten percent.” [No hyphens because 'one hundred and ten percent' isn't modifying anything.] B—Correct.

      (8) Louise said, “The interest rate is at twelve point seven.” [No hyphens because 'twelve point seven' isn't modifying anything, correct?] B—Correct.

      (9) Louise said, “The interest rate is at twelve-point-seven percent.” [Hyphenated because 'twelve point seven' is modifying 'percent', right?] B—Incorrect. This is the same structure as #2 and #7.

      (10) Louise said, “I need one-hundred-percent commitment from you.” [Hyphenated because 'one-hundred-percent' modifies 'commitment', correct?] B—Incorrect. Same structure as #4.

  31. Mike says:

    Also (last question):

    Punctuated correctly? No recasts, please.

    It was a 10-20% a year increase.
    (Do I need to include the % sign before “10”?)

    It was a $10-15 million a year industry.
    (Do I need to include the $ sign before “15”?)

    It was a $150–160,000 a year business.
    (Do I need to repeat the $ sign before “$160,000″?)

    It was a $10 million to $20 million a year business.
    (OK as written?)

    It was a $150,000 to $160,000 a year industry.
    (OK as written?)

    The 3-year 2-month 8-day project was completed on January 1.
    (OK as punctuated?)

    The 2-hour 14-minute 10-second marathon was grueling.
    The marathon lasted 2 hours 14 minutes 10 seconds.
    (I don’t think commas should separate hours, minutes, and seconds because the time is one singular unit.)

    The 10-pound 5-ounce baby was born on February 7.
    The 6-foot 5-inch basketball player scored 38 points.
    (OK as punctuated?)

    The baby weighed 10 pounds 5 ounces.
    Joe was 6 feet 5 inches tall.
    (OK as punctuated?)

    Lastly, can I omit the comma after “2005” and “Oklahoma” below?
    The June 6, 2005, issue sold like hot cakes.
    The Enid, Oklahoma, plant closed its doors after 96 years of business.

    Thank you kindly.

    Respectfully,

    Mike

  32. Mike says:

    I serendipitously stumbled upon this site, and I must say it’s the best one out there in regard to punctuation. If I may, could I please ask a few more questions that were not covered under certain sections of your page?

    You list “six twenty” (for time).
    For the adjectives, would it be “a six-twenty appointment,” “a six-twenty PM appointment,” and “a six-twenty-five appointment”? Please, no recasts to numbers.

    Also for dates, are the following technically punctuated correctly? Please, no recasts to numbers.
    Dave said, “It happened in the nineteen nineties.”
    Dave said, “It happened in nineteen eighty-five and in nineteen ninety.”
    Dave said, “The nineteen-ninety-five hit ‘Money for Nothing’ dominated the top of the charts for two months.”
    “Dave said, “The nineteen-seventy hit ‘Vehicle’ was a great one!”

    I’m told that the following is punctuated correctly, but I have my doubts because of the heavy punctuation: My wife, Susan; my brother, Tommy; and my sister, Ellen, will attend the ceremonies. [I have one wife, one brother, and one sister.] Is this correct to you (without recasting), or should I use this version and break some rules?
    My wife Susan, my brother Tommy, and my sister Ellen will attend the ceremonies. Do you support the first version with the semicolons or the second version minus the semicolons?

    Is it “mid-to-late fifties” or “mid- to late fifties”?

    Do you support open or closed punctuation? Number one, two, or three below?
    1. Tom was annoyed by Fran’s antics, and, quite honestly, I’m surprised he did not chastise her.
    2. Tom was annoyed by Fran’s antics, and quite honestly, I’m surprised he did not chastise her.
    3. Tom was annoyed by Fran’s antics, and quite honestly I’m surprised he did not chastise her.

    Do you place a comma before “that” mid-sentence?
    John said that, in 1969, he married his wife Julia. Myles said that, despite the circumstances involved, he would be filing for a divorce.

    In a salutation on a line by itself in an email, which is correct?

    Hi, Mike,
    Hi, Mike:
    Hi, Mike.
    Hi, Mike—

    And does a comma or a period correctly follow “Thanks” and “Thank you” in the absence of a complimentary closing? The following examples close out an email correspondence. Which is preferred—the comma or the period?

    Thanks,
    Mike

    Thanks.
    Mike

    Thank you,
    Mike

    Thank you.
    Mike

  33. Mike says:

    Aside from recasting, what is the correct punctuation for the possessive of a song title within quote marks? I know that this is better: The vocal and melodic arrangement of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” were spot on.
    I know that writers would not use this rendition, but I am super-curious as to which is the most correct option. Which looks best below and is correct—one, two, or three?

    (1) “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” ’s vocal and melodic arrangement were spot on.

    (2) “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”’s vocal and melodic arrangement were spot on.

    (3) “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”’s vocal and melodic arrangement were spot on.
    (Straight quote used here to denote possession outside of the ending double quote marks.)

  34. Mike says:

    I am editing a piece of work in which the author wants me to spell out the decade: nineteen nineties. However, he wants me to denote the possessive form in the spelled-out version—“The nineteen seventies economic problems . . .” I am not permitted to recast, as much as I would love to.
    Do I write “The nineteen-seventies (with the hyphen?) economic problems were . . .” / “The nineteen seventies (without the hyphen?) economic problems were . . .”?

    Also, if there is a superlative before the spelled-out decade, do we place an apostrophe after the decade? For example, “The biggest nineteen-nineties’ challenges were . . .”

    Thank you very much for any input on this.

  35. Mike says:

    Last question for a while . . .

    In quoted dialogue, does this look acceptable for telephone numbers? Bernie said, “Mike’s telephone number is two-one-two, nine-five-seven, eight-oh-four-six.”

    If “zero” was pronounced on lieu of “oh,” we’d write that. Look good to you?

    Thanks again.

  36. Mike says:

    One or two below?

    (1) The cashier said, “The customer made a one–hundred–dollar, seventy–nine–cent purchase.”

    (2) The cashier said, “The customer made a one–hundred–dollar seventy–nine–cent purchase.” (No comma after “dollar”?)

    For large spelled–out numbers, would you place the commas after each number the same way they’d appear in the numeric representation?

    Which would you go with—one or two?

    25,250,869
    (1) twenty-five million, two hundred fifty-thousand, eight hundred sixty-nine
    (2) twenty-five million two hundred fifty-thousand eight hundred sixty-nine

  37. Mike says:

    Sorry. I should have posted these in my original thread regarding these. Do they look correct in written quoted dialogue?

    “He took the two-forty p.m. train.
    “He took the two-forty train.”
    “He took the two-forty-five p.m. train.”
    “He took the two-forty-five train.”
    “He took the Number Six (or No. 6 train) at four forty.”

    Again, I cannot thank you enough. I am archiving my responses so that I will always have a reference sheet.

  38. Mike says:

    ***My apologies for flooding your board with my questions. I have never been able to get such solid answers from any other online forum or style guide. I promise that these are my last questions for a while. Again, thank you for providing such a phenomenal service to inquisitive minds like mine. :-)

    Your rule above states, “No commas or hyphens between hours and minutes, feet and inches, pounds and ounces, and dollars and cents that are spelled out.”

    That being said, are the following examples correct and punctuated to the letter? If not, please advise as to the correct way. Again, please no recasts.

    Clyde said, “The customer made a ten-dollar-forty-five-cent purchase.”

    Clyde said, “The customer’s purchase totaled ten dollars forty-five cents.”

    1. Connie said, “The movie lasted two hours twenty minutes.”

    2. Connie said, “It was a two-hour-twenty-minute movie.”

    3. Connie said the marathon lasted two hours twenty minutes and fifteen seconds.”

    4. Connie said, “It was a two-hour-twenty-minute-fifteen-second marathon.” (Bad sentence, I know, but I wanted to determine with certainty whether or not this example is technically correct in accordance with your rule posted above.)

    Again, I cannot thank you enough, Beth! Enjoy your week!

  39. Julianne says:

    Thanks for your article. Most helpful. I have a question about hotel room numbers. Should they be written -… ex..room 224 or room two twenty-four.

    Thanks so much.

    • Julianne, since the number is higher than 100 and because it’s a number used for identification (see the comment addressing this issue above), use the numeral. Unless you’re talking about dialogue.

      For dialogue, we would typically spell out the number. Yet since we can argue that a room number is used for identification, which means we use numerals, even in dialogue you could write room 224.

  40. Susan says:

    Hi Beth,
    I am editing a fiction book and the author uses military time quite a lot, as in 0600 hours. Some of these times are in dialogue while others are not. I have stet, but I just thought I would double check in the light of spelling out numbers in dialogue. I would really appreciate your advice. Thanks.

    • Susan, my first recommendation would be to spell out the time in dialogue whether it’s military time or standard time. The rule about characters speaking words rather than symbols or numbers is a good reason to spell out the time—so zero six hundred hours.

      In this way a soldier and a civilian could be differentiated. The soldier would use zero and the civilian who watches a lot of movies might use oh (so the civilian might say oh six hundred).

      And yet . . . a writer could argue for the numerals for military time in dialogue as a style choice. I’d probably encourage the writer to use the words for dialogue, especially if time doesn’t come up too often in dialogue. If, however, there are multiple times spoken in the same sentence, using the numerals instead might well be the best choice—easier on the reader. (And you could use this exception for a single sentence or for a paragraph of dialogue that contains several instances of time whether or not you’re spelling other spoken instances of time. That is, the could truly be an exception to your normal rules.)

      As for the use of the numerals in narrative . . .

      Definitely use the numerals in headers or sub-titles. And since you’re pointing out an exact (to the minute) time, use numerals in the story’s text as well. Writing 0723 hours is the same as writing 7:23—both should be written as numerals.

      Did that get at the core of your question?

  41. Lisa says:

    Hi Beth,

    Great article. I love your blog. I’m editing a novel and have a question for you.

    “Frank’s nine-o’clock is here,” Denise said.

    My writer insists on the hyphen. What do you think?

    Thanks!

    • Lisa, I can see why the writer might want a hyphen there, to treat the nine o’clock [appointment] as a unit, a thing, but it doesn’t need a hyphen. Even nine o’clock appointment doesn’t get a hyphen, so there’s no argument that nine o’clock is a compound modifier before an implied noun [appointment] and therefore deserves a hyphen, just as it would if the implied noun were actually there.

      The three-year-old was playing in the street is an example of a compound modifier getting hyphens because it comes before an implied noun [child, boy or girl]. The hyphens would be there if the implied noun was actually included—The three-year-old girl was playing in the street.

      The writer could argue the hyphen is a style choice, but unnecessary punctuation can just clutter up a manuscript.

      Maybe you could point out that Frank’s nine a.m. wouldn’t get a hyphen either, show her that Frank’s nine-a.m., with the hyphen, would look odd.

      Still, if the writer wants the hyphen and has a good reason to use it, exceptions for style choice can be made. Especially if they head off confusion. Going with something nonstandard because of a style choice happens all the time. Just be consistent throughout the manuscript.

      —————

      I tried to find any kind of solid rule for you on this one—you shall or you shall not—but I couldn’t find anything other than the typical rules for hyphenating words. I hope this helps.

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