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Numbers in Fiction

January 13, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 9, 2015

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 . . .
sixth                           thirtieth (thirty-first, thirty-second, and so on)
seventh                       fortieth
eighth                         fiftieth
ninth                           sixtieth
tenth                          seventieth
eleventh                     eightieth
twelfth                       ninetieth
fourteenth                                               one hundredth
fifteenth*                                                 one thousandth
sixteenth                                                  one millionth

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?


__ 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 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 the fifties’ [also the ’50s’] most glamorous star.

An earlier example was incorrect—She was decked out in cute 1950’s clothes, but the haircut was atrocious. Incorrect

__ 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.


__ 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 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)


__ 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


a two-dollar bill

a twenty-dollar fine

a two-hundred-dollar fine

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


__ 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. Age terms, both nouns and adjectives used before nouns, are hyphenated. (Noun forms of compound words paired with the word old are hyphenated, as are adjectives paired with old that are placed before nouns.)

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.





__ 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.


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

175 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)
    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.”


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


    “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?


    • 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.

    • Louis, use oh six hundred, using oh like the letter. And you’re exactly right—go with what the character would say.

    • Louis K says:

      Thanks. You settled a discussion point between my editor and me.

      • Running options back and forth between writer and editor is an excellent way to make decisions and to work out differences. Both parties get a stronger sense of what works in most situations and what is required for a particular situation. Do consider your editor’s suggestions but never be hesitant about making and promoting your own as well.

        I’m glad I could help.

  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.

  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.



  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?



    Thank you,

    Thank you.

  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?

    (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 -… 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?


    • 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.

  42. ElizaD says:

    Thanks so much for this amazing resource. I refer to it constantly and have sent numerous editing clients here, too. I have a question, though: when talking about temperature in general terms, in narrative, would you use numerals or spell it out?

    E.g.: It was a cold day. It must have been in the 30s (or thirties).

    CMoS 9.13 would seem to indicate spelling it out, but it seems to me to “look wrong” that way (perhaps by analogy to decades?).

    • Eliza, I’d go with the words. I’m traveling, so I don’t have my CMOS with me, but if it shows the word, you can safely go with it. You could always use numerals as a style choice, but words are usually the better choice.

  43. Carol says:

    Thank you for this great resource. You’ve answered so many questions. I’m sure I’ll be referencing your blog regularly.

    Just a few clarifications. Since 911 is used for identification, are numerals correct, even in dialogue? Also, Route 301 is used in dialogue, but the character refers to it simply as 301 without the word Route. Can I still use numerals?

    Should these be spelled out? The odometer had reached 2.9 when they found the building. They took a right at exactly the 3.6 mile mark. (Or two point nine and three point six?)

    Thanks for your help.

    • All great questions, Carol.

      I’ve seen both 9-1-1 and nine-one-one in dialogue in published books, yet since we speak words, I suggest going with the words for this one. I found the numbers spelled out in two different books just this week.

      Since route numbers are one of the exceptions to the rules about spelling out numbers in dialogue, there’s no reason not to use the numerals in dialogue, even without the word route. Go with the numeral. You might, however, want to be sure that someone mentioned (or thought about) Route 301, using the word Route, not long before this moment of dialogue so that readers understand the characters are talking about a road/highway.

      Are the two examples for miles in dialogue as well? If so, go with spelling out the numbers as words. Let the reader hear what the character is saying. Maybe he’s not saying point.

      “They took a right at the three-point-six-mile mark.”

      “They took a right after three-point-six miles.”

      “They took a right after three and six-tenths miles.”


      I hope this helps. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you before this. Thanks for the reminder.

      • Carol says:

        I changed 911 to words, kept Route 301, and changed the odometer readings even though they were not in dialogue.

        Thanks so much for your input.

        • So you changed the odometer readings to words from numerals? Since they’re not in dialogue, you could leave them as numerals. Yet, just as the numbers can be spoken different ways as words, they can also be thought or heard different ways. If you write them out as words, just as in the dialogue examples, you can control what the reader hears.

          Many of the rules for numbers are for whole numbers. So while we’d spell out the whole words two and three in both narrative and dialogue, you might actually want the ease of reading 2.9 and 3.6 in the narrative. Try both and determine which would be easier for the reader to follow. Keeping readers from becoming confused is a primary goal.

  44. Tanis says:

    In dialogue, how would you write $9.99 lunch buffet? Would it be “nine-ninety-nine lunch buffet”?

    • Tanis, write it nine ninety-nine lunch buffet.

      If your character actually says the word dollars, you could show that as well.

      “Mom, why are prices always something dollars and something-nine cents? Like that buffet. The sign says nine dollars and ninety-nine cents.”

      • Tanis says:

        Thanks so much, Beth. So, no need to hyphenate between nine and ninety-nine even though it modifies lunch buffet? I found something in CMos that made me think I had to, but now I can’t find the reference again.

        • Tanis, I admit I was only looking at the number part when I answered, not considering that the number was an adjective. I thought you were asking whether or not to run the numbers together in general.

          So, as for the entire number being a modifier of lunch buffet, yes, we would typically hyphenate a multiword adjective before the noun. However, I spent some time this afternoon looking for examples in CMOS and in several dozen online sources, and couldn’t find one that specifically addressed this situation. Yet in a related issue, CMOS does say that when the second element of a compound expression is an already-hyphenated fraction, the full compound, even when used as an adjective before a noun, is not hyphenated. Now, fractions are not the same as cents, but the visual would be the same—combining numbers with other numbers that are already hyphenated. So I’m still leaning toward no hyphen between nine and ninety-nine in your example.

          The point of hyphenating compounds is to do away with confusion, but the extra hyphen might well confuse more than it elucidates.

          Still, with only a few exceptions, you can almost always join with hyphens those compounds that act as adjectives before a noun. I think you could argue your case either way on this one—there doesn’t seem to be one specific rule for the conditions of this type of phrase spoken as dialogue.

          I don’t know if that’s any help, but this is an unusual and isolated case. Choosing either option is probably okay.

          If anyone else has some insight, I’d love to hear it.

          • Tanis says:

            I like your fraction reasoning. I’m going to go with not hyphenating it. I appreciate your spending so much time looking for an answer. I find you to be an absolutely invaluable resource!

  45. Carol says:


    I’m still interested in hearing your response to my question of November 22 regarding 911, route numbers, and odometer readings. Thanks.

  46. Linda K. says:

    Thank you for taking time to read this. I didn’t see the answer above. I apologize if I missed it. Which is correct? He has a fifty-dollar-bill OR He has a fifty-dollar bill?

    • Linda, fifty-dollar bill is the correct one.

      A few related examples—

      He’s holding fifty dollars.
      He’s holding a fifty-dollar bill.
      He owes me twenty dollars.
      He still owes the twenty-dollar fine.
      The tab is sixty-five dollars.
      She paid the sixty-five-dollar tab.
      They lost a ten-million-dollar lawsuit.

      A trick to help with hyphens for dollar amounts—
      If dollar(s) is used as a noun, it is not linked to the amount with hyphens (I found five dollars). If dollar is part of the adjective and comes before another noun (tab, bill, lawsuit) that it describes, it is linked to the other words of the compound adjective with hyphens (I found a five-dollar bill).

      Also, the dollar amount used as a compound adjective is not linked with a hyphen to the noun it modifies. So fifty-dollar-bill and fifty-million-dollar-lawsuit are incorrect. The noun does not get linked to the adjective.

      A good question. I really need to do an article on compound modifiers.

  47. Kev Horgan says:

    Hi Beth,

    This has been very helpful. However, I have a question I don’t think you’ve addressed yet.

    I’m editing a novel and the writer is describing a sport scene with a ticking clock. He writes, “The game clock was ticking down, 1:42, 1:41, 1:40.” I want to say I’ve seen this ‘ticking clock’ usage in published works before, but I can’t find any examples. Furthermore, it is in the middle of a paragraph.

    In your expert opinion, should it be written out? And, either way, would it be better to separate the ticking clock and treat it like a dialogue?

    Example: The game clock was ticking down.
    One forty-two.
    One forty-one.
    One forty.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


    • Kev, you do have options, and you’re on track with them.

      In narrative, since we usually use numerals rather than words for exact times, using them for your example—for a countdown clock—would work very well. (Though I’d probably introduce a list of times with a colon or a dash rather than a comma.) In addition, the use of numerals makes the reader see the countdown clock—it’s a helpful visual, especially for the first examples of the countdown clock’s time. In your case, however, you do want to make sure that the reader doesn’t read the numerals as hour and minutes of the time of day. Listing a series of times rather than only a single instance of the timer’s readout, as the writer has done in your example, should eliminate any confusion, even if later down the page only single times are listed.

      As for separating the times into their own paragraphs, yes, that would also work. However, as you’ve pointed out, you’d want to use words rather than numerals if there are no other words in each paragraph. Although I admit I’ve probably seen numerals for exact times in books in the same kinds of situations where you’ve used words. I’m talking more specifically time of day (hour and minute) rather than the minutes and seconds left in a countdown clock, but it’s the same idea. Still, numerals sitting alone as a line of text can be confusing for readers. I would definitely go with words rather than numerals in such cases—doing so fits the standard rules for when to use words rather than numerals for numbers.

      I have no resource that specifically suggests options other than those you’ve already mentioned.

      And I would only separate the countdown into separate paragraphs for specific purposes. One reason—as a way to build tension. There’s a lot more tension in your example with the times separated than in the example with the times listed within a paragraph. Yet either option is correct, depending on the effect you need to create.

      A second reason to separate the countdown into paragraphs is to allow the time remaining after that point to be noted without also making it necessary to include explanatory text each time —The clock now read 1:23. The clock was now at 1:18. Once you set up the time as a line of it’s own—and it’s clear that that’s what you’ve done—you can carry on with the setup as long as you need to, inserting moments from the countdown clock in between other paragraphs of narrative or dialogue. This kind of device can get old fast, however, so you wouldn’t want to start to soon or include too many examples of the countdown.

      If a character is speaking the time in dialogue, keep in mind that you’ll want to use words rather than numerals.

      Your reasoning and options look good to me.

  48. Hi, this topic is very helpful, and I have another number related question. What if the characters are talking about tennis rankings, such as,

    “He is ranked 88th.” or “Anton Akhmerov. Russian. Rank 88.” Must I spell it out?

    Also, when talking about tennis scores, for example, when it’s “30-all.” Is it “thirty all” or if it’s “6-7” does it become “six – seven” ?

    Sometimes the characters talk about the scores in their dialogue as well.

    • Maria, if you’re talking dialogue, each of your examples would typically be spelled out. Just remind yourself that people speak words, not symbols. Numerals are symbols.

      There are exceptions, of course, for expressions with more than a few numbers in them and for years—and for products and highways and such. But most of the time, spell out spoken numbers.

      I would also omit the hyphen between six and seven in dialogue.

  49. What a helpful post – many thanks.

    My editor wants me to use Roman numerals – ie: World War II – in dialogue. I think it looks odd to have the characters speaking in symbols. Could you advise please? Many thanks.

    • Joanna, although your editor may want you to use II rather than two for reasons of style or maybe consistency—maybe you use World War II a lot in your text, and the editor wants that consistency even in dialogue—I think you definitely have a case for using the word here. You’re right that characters don’t speak in symbols, so World War Two is quite appropriate. For this one you can even use the word rather than the symbol outside of dialogue.

      Spelling the word would not be wrong, so push back a bit with your editor, maybe see what he or she is concerned about.

      And keep in mind that there are exceptions to speaking symbols. We do write years and highways as numerals, even in dialogue.

      • What about something like “I Corps” and “XI Corps” etc. in dialogue? I just can’t hear the speaker saying “Eye Corps” and “Ex Eye Corps.” I can’t seem to win this skirmish with either the author or the copy editor. I always defer to them in such a case but for my own edification, please tell me what you think.

        • Frank, I wanted to check with my military source for this one (family members are great sources of odd info).

          I’d spell it I Corps in dialogue for sure. They aren’t saying eye, although the pronunciation is the same (and they sometimes use eye themselves in references). They’re saying the letter I, even though this is technically a Roman numeral. The capital I works perfectly well in this case.

          I watched a couple of videos that used First Corps, but from what my source said, that’s not as usual as I Corps.

          For something like III Corps, I’d use Third or Three Corps in dialogue. But the choice, apparently, depends on the context and the speaker. Some people would always say three while others would say third.

          Apparently VII Corps was always pronounced Seventh Corps, never Seven Corps.

          I’m guessing that anything beyond ten should use the ordinal, although I was told, again, that the proper terminology depended on speaker and context and on the particular corps and its history.

          You might want to check with someone in the military (recruiting office?) for specifics for each corps and for each situation. (Or maybe with someone at the Army Heritage Center.) From what I can tell, it would be easy to say these incorrectly. Most people, it seems, would use other designations altogether. Talk about the individual corps rather than divisions would happen between very few individuals. That is, the focus tends to be on divisions or other groupings.

          A great question. And something to make note of to keep as a reference.

  50. C.C. says:

    Hi there. How do you approach time in dialogue (and in narrative) when you’re dealing with a mystery novel? In mysteries, times are incredibly important for the reader and am and pm are often needed to make it clear when an event actually happened. In this case, do you think it’s okay to spell out times in dialogue when followed by am/pm? Changing every instance to avoid am/pm doesn’t feel right, especially when cops are speaking to one another and would most definitely use am or pm. Thoughts?

    • C.C., yes, I do think it’s okay to spell out the times in dialogue if you’re using am/pm. This is one of those times when opposing rules come together and need adjusting. A great question.

  51. Mike says:

    Should it be 10 mph or ten mph?

  52. Jen says:

    I find it interesting that in the numbers in dialogue example you write out 115 as “one hundred and fifteen” when CMoS prefers no “and” in whole numbers.

    I know it’s an old post, but it makes the whole article seem less than trustworthy. Yanno?

    • Tanis says:

      Jen, I know your comment was directed at Beth, but I just wanted to say that the whole point of writing out numbers in dialogue is so that readers will hear them the way the character would say them. Personally, I think most people would say the “and.” I’ve found Beth’s advice to be extremely trustworthy.

    • It wouldn’t be the first time I disagreed with CMOS, Jen. But I actually addressed the issue in the dialogue section—

      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.


      And it is true that rules are often different for fiction. We have to account for our characters and for style choices, not only formal rules.

      • Jen says:

        Guess I skimmed the wrong part.

        I guess I like to pretend the people I’m reading paid attention in class. And are older than 20. 😛

  53. Sally says:

    “1950’s clothes”? The clothes belonging to 1950?
    Or did you mean clothes characteristic of the 1950s? In which case, “1950s” can be used to modify the clothes without the apostrophe, so it would just be “1950s clothes”, right? Same as with “fifties clothes” rather than “fifties’ clothes”.
    Apart from that, lots of useful information, thanks :-)

  54. Sally, you are absolutely correct. I was so eager to include an example for the possessive that I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve got a new example for that one. Thanks for the heads-up.

  55. Hayley says:

    I could use your advice for two things.
    Regarding dialogue, would it be correct to write “Did you know the school district hasn’t been three-A since we graduated high school?”
    Or should it be “3A”?
    Also, for narrative, if you have already named a highway, say highway 67. If you were to then write: He pulled the car back onto the 67.—Is that correct? Or should the number be spelled out, considering there isn’t the word “highway” in front of it?
    I’d really appreciate your help.

    • Hayley, go with the 67 for the highway. Readers will probably be able to better understand it to be a highway if you keep the numerals, even without the highway designation.

      Yet make sure that it’s actually known as the 67. Only in some locales are highways and freeways preceded by the. In other places highways are simply called by their numbers.

      “How did you get here?”

      “I took Richland over to 66.”

      For the 3A issue, I can only offer a guess/recommendation. Is 3A a ranking? If so, I’m guessing that it’s written with the numeral in internal district documents and even in newspaper accounts. So even in dialogue, stick to 3A for this one. It wouldn’t hurt anything to spell it out, but readers would probably catch on faster with the numeral. Call this one a case of writer’s style choice.

  56. Tina Rossi says:

    How do you think Chicago would render this?

    a ten-pound-five-ounce baby
    a ten-pound, five-ounce baby

    But if it is a mixed number, would we use numerals like this?

    a 10-pound-3½-ounce baby
    a 10-pound, 3½-ounce baby

    The baby weighed ten pounds three ounces.
    The baby weighed ten pounds, three ounces.

    Which examples would be correct, per Chicago, above?

    There are no examples regarding weight (only height) in the Chicago manual and the Chicago Q&A.

    Thanks for any help.


    • Tina Rossi says:

      Thank you!

      So no commas. These, then, spelled out, I think would be correct. Yes or no? Thanks!

      a six-pound-eight-and-a-half- ounce baby …

      a five-foot-ten-and-a-quarter-inch woman

  57. Tina Rossi says:

    One more, please. In nonfiction, do I need suspended hyphens in these? If so, are they punctuated correctly?
    Please, no recasts.

    a $50 million- to $60 million-a-year industry
    Or should it be:
    a $50- to $60-million-a-year industry

    a $90,000- to $100,000-per-year joint income (correct?)

    And Chicago says no hyphen between a number and the word “percent.” However, would we include hyphens in “percent a year” in the following? Is this punctuated correctly?

    a 10 to 20 percent-a-year increase (with figures)..correct?

    a ten- to twenty-percent-a-year increase (correctly punctuated with suspended hyphens in the spelled-out version)?

    Thank you, Beth!!!

    • a $50- to $60-million-a-year industry is correct. (But no hyphen with something like a $60 million profit. When this number is partly spelled out, it doesn’t get a hyphen unless other words that require hyphens—as in your example—are also included.)

      a $90,000- to $100,000-per-year joint income (yes, this is correct)

      a 10- to 20-percent-a-year increase (with the added words that require hyphens, you do hyphenate the whole modifier)

      a ten- to twenty-percent-a-year increase (correct)

      Note: While these last three are correct according to some—because this fits the format of suspended hyphens—you could use full hyphenation to show a range.

      a ten-to-twenty-percent-a-year increase


      I had to verify these, but I got help from a great resource at—Hyphens, Fractions, Numbers.

    • Tina Rossi says:

      Thank you so much for that!

      If it were, similarly,

      a $50- to $100-a-month charge, the $50-, in this case means fifty dollars, whereas $50- in “$50- to $60-million-a-year industry” means fifty million, not fifty dollars.

      • Readers should be able to pick up on the correct amounts with these hyphenated as they are. That million should stand out clearly.

        Did you see the note I added to the last comment? When a compound is used as a range and includes the word to, I like the full hyphens. Some sources I checked mentioned using the suspended hyphen with and, or, and to in cases just like this, but I would probably hyphenate the full phrase with to.

        • Tina Rossi says:

          So, with “to,” you mean this? Just so I’m clear on this.

          a $50-to-$60-million-a-year industry
          a fifty-to-sixty-million-dollar-a-year industry
          five-to-ten-year-old children
          fifteen-to-twenty-year mortgages

          $50- and $60-million-a-year losses
          $50- or $60-million-a-year losses
          five- and ten-year-old children
          fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages
          fifteen- or twenty-year mortgages

          In other words, with “to” use hyphens on both sides of it with the examples above. But if “and” or “or” are used in similar ranges, then use suspended hyphenation. Have I got this right? Are the examples above correct?

          Thank you, Beth! :)

          • Tina Rossi says:

            Hi, Beth. Do you agree with my examples below?

            a $50-to-$60-million-a-year industry
            a fifty-to-sixty-million-dollar-a-year industry
            five-to-ten-year-old children
            fifteen-to-twenty-year mortgages

            $50- and $60-million-a-year losses
            $50- or $60-million-a-year losses
            five- and ten-year-old children
            fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages
            fifteen- or twenty-year mortgages

            In other words, with “to” use hyphens on both sides of it with the examples above. But if “and” or “or” are used in similar ranges, then use suspended hyphenation. Have I got this right? Are the examples above correct?

            Thank you so very much.

          • Tina Rossi says:

            I did hours of research and did find this.

            I do believe this is what you meant by full hyphenation with just the word “to,” but not with “and” or “or.”

            Amy Einsohn, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, says that in a phrase like “ten-to-fifteen-minute traffic delays,” the “ten to fifteen” constitutes a unit—an approximation of length of the backup—and it is therefore not a suspended compound. (Thus, we hyphenate throughout—or use full hyphenation, as you said.) The Handbook of Good English, by Edward Johnson has this to say: Note that “I bought ten- to twenty-year bonds” is wrong, because the compound is meant to indicate a range of bond maturities, not two separate bond categories, and it should be unified rather than suspended: “I bought ten-to-twenty-year bonds.” But when “and” or “or” is used, we use suspended hyphens, as in “ten- and twenty-year bonds” and “ten- or twenty-year bonds.”

            Thus I believe that every example I listed above (e.g., $65-to-$75-million-a-year industry, five-to-ten-year-old children) is correct. Do you concur?

          • Tina, I agree with each of these. Connect the whole phrase as a unit when you’re indicating a range (thus using to) and use the suspended hyphen when you’re referring to two items.

            One of the sources I checked recommended hyphenating when using or, and, and to, but that simply didn’t make sense. Your research is correct.

      • Tina Rossi says:

        Last question on this.

        If a range involves thousands, we must include the zeros:

        a $70,000-to-$80,000-a-year joint income …
        Not: a $70-to-$80,000-a-year joint income … agreed?

        The “millions” example is different because “million” is mentioned, as in “a $55-to-$65-million-a-year industry.”

        And is there a rule that prohibits the use of hyphens with the percent symbol? Do you think the following two examples are punctuated correctly with the % sign?

        a 10%-to-20%-a-year increase in revenue
        a 20%-a-year savings

        Technically correct to both?

        Thank you for everything, Beth. Your site is CMOS multiplied by a million!

        • Tina, yes, include the zeroes in your first example. Otherwise you’re saying 70 to 80,000—quite a big range.


          I imagine that there’s the same prohibition about writing 10%-decrease as there is about writing 10-percent decrease. So write 10% decrease and 10 percent decrease. (I can find no source that specifically spells this out.)

          Yet since you can use hyphens when percent is part of a longer compound, you can probably do the same for %.

          So both of your examples should be correct. (A reminder that you would use % in place of percent only in technical or scientific writing. For most text, spell out percent.)


          I’m glad the site is helpful for you. But if you’re specifically looking at nonfiction rules, make sure you check multiple sites. My emphasis is on fiction rules, which are sometimes different.

      • Tina Rossi says:

        Hey, Beth! Thought I’d share. I received this from an APA Style expert. I sent this to her about three weeks ago. Here was her reply:

        Dear Denise,

        These are all fine (with the en dashes and hyphens), except for the one with the percentage sign. For that you want to repeat the percentage sign with both numbers, just like you do with the dollar sign for money.

        a 6%–12%-a-year tax hike
        a $1–$2-per-day fee

        a $35–$40-million-per-year industry

        a 6–12%-a-year tax hike

        a $20,000–$30,000-per-year salary

        a 20–30-mile hike

        5–10-gallon containers

        a group of 5–10-year-olds

        20–30-, 35–45-, and 50–60-year-old men

        a group of 20–30-, 35–45-, and 50–60-year-olds

        within a 20–30-mile radius

        a 10–15-foot sprint

        a 5–10-inch-wide laceration

        a 20–30-mile-long stretch of highway

        a 15–20-foot-deep pool

        a 20–30-pound weight loss

  58. Tina Rossi says:

    Chicago 16– 9.15 Whole numbers plus fractions

    Quantities consisting of whole numbers and simple fractions may be spelled out if short but are often better expressed in numerals (especially if a symbol for the fraction is available, as in the example here).

    Lester is exactly 3 feet 5¼ inches tall.

    My guess, then, with weights, would be:

    a six-pound-eight-ounce baby
    a five-foot-ten-inch woman

    Three hyphens in each, per Chicago. Correct?

    But if we have a whole number with a simple fraction, write them like this, correct?

    a 6-pound-8½-ounce baby
    The baby weighed 6 pounds 8½ ounces.
    a 3-foot-5¼-inch man

    I think that, based on Chicago section 9.15 above, I have punctuated all examples correctly. Do you concur?

    Thank you so much!

    • Tina, let me start with this comment first.

      Yes, three hyphens for the first examples.

      The hyphens with simple fractions are a bit tougher. Yes, you could write them as you have, with numerals (for nonfiction). Yet CMOS even has this example in their chart—

      a one-and-a-half-inch hem


      We want to be clear, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

      With your examples, you’ve got not only whole numbers and fractions but multiple measurements—pounds and ounces, feet and inches. That makes for quite the mix. Yet if you can’t rewrite—or you just need to know how you’d write those kinds of numbers—then, yes, everything you’ve got (in this comment) is correct.

      Still, the two examples with numerals and fractions hyphenated before the noun may confuse readers.

      a 6-pound-8½-ounce baby
      a 3-foot-5¼-inch man

      Definitely consider rewriting these for clarity. We use the numerals for clarity, but when those numerals make nothing clear, use words or rewrite.

      And when hyphenated modifiers aren’t clear, when they cause confusion, definitely rewrite.


      And to address one of your earlier examples, we don’t put a comma between pounds and ounces or feet and inches—doing so would make the two units of measure seem to be separate modifiers, which would be odd.

  59. Lou Sanders says:

    Now I have a hyphen query concerning comma insertion. Are these correct?

    a two-hour, twenty-five-minute performance

    a six-hour, four-minute, thirty-two-second marathon

    a three-year, ten-month project

    …lasted two hours, twenty-five minutes

    … lasted six hours, four minutes, thirty-two-seconds

    …lasted three years, ten months


    Do we need a comma in these phrases?

    a thirty-day, money-back guarantee

    a no-risk, ninety-day trial

    Many thanks.

    Great site!!!!!!!

  60. Lou Sanders says:

    Upon further cogitation, I say no commas in any of these. Do you agree?

    a two-hour twenty-five-minute performance

    a six-hour four-minute thirty-two-second marathon

    a three-year ten-month project

    …lasted two hours twenty-five minutes

    … lasted six hours four minutes thirty-two-seconds

    …lasted three years ten months

    a thirty-day money-back guarantee

    a no-risk ninety-day trial

    • Lou, no commas for these would be correct. Commas between them would imply that they’re separate modifiers, but some are actually one long modifier. And because they are one modifier, that means that some of them need hyphens.

      Use hyphens for (most) multiword compound modifiers before a noun. Many compound modifiers are open after a noun. For your examples—

      a two-hour-twenty-five-minute performance

      a six-hour-four-minute-thirty-two-second marathon

      a three-year-ten-month project

      …lasted two hours twenty-five minutes (no change)

      … lasted six hours four minutes thirty-two-seconds (no change)

      …lasted three years ten months (no change)


      The final two examples also don’t get commas, but for a bit of a different reason.

      Money-back guarantee and ninety-day trial are units on their own, akin to wedding dress. Any modifier added before the unit modifies the whole unit. So as we’d have a white wedding dress or an old-fashioned wedding dress (no commas), we’d also have a thirty-day money-back guarantee.

      Note (added 9/22/15): Lou, see section 5.91 in CMOS 16 for more details on phrasal adjectives. Sub-section 3 deals with multiple phrasal adjectives modifying the same noun (your thirty-day money-back guarantee and no-risk ninety-day trial.

      This article on the Royal Order of Adjectives might be helpful as well.


      As I mentioned to Tina, sometimes rewriting is the better option. Rather than write a six-hour-four-minute-thirty-two-second marathon, you might want to say he finished the marathon in six hours, four minutes, and thirty-two seconds. Sometimes the long modifiers get confusing and a simple rewording makes everything clear.

  61. Jake Houck says:

    Wonderful service, Beth!

    I’ll get right to my question!

    Is it:
    mid- to late fifties
    mid-to-late fifties
    mid to late fifties


    low to mid seventies
    low to mid-seventies

    Thank you for any reply!

    Jacob Houck

    • Sorry, Jake. I missed a couple of these.

      CMOS recommends closed compounds with prefixes (such as mid). So no hyphen is necessary for midfifties. But you still have a couple of options.

      mid-to-late fifties—this works

      mid to late fifties—this works as well


      I’m honestly not sure about the low to mid seventies question. Using midseventies here, in any combination, seems odd. My best guess on this one is low to mid seventies. Readers should be able to understand without a problem.

  62. Jake Houck says:

    And one last question for me. I prefer the percent (%) symbol in my writing. Following the advice above, would these be correct too? If so, is 1 or 2 preferred below?

    1. a 10%-to-20%-a-year savings
    2. a 10-to-20%-a-year savings

    a 50%-a-year increase in crime (this okay too?)

    Thanks a mil!

    • Jake, The Copyeditor’s Handbook seems to show that either of your choices would work. In the chapter on numbers and numerals, they point out that there are multiple ways to show ranges, and one choice indicates that you can include only one use of the percent symbol.

      As I just mentioned to Tina (in a similar question up the comment thread a few comments), the use of a 50%-a-year increase in crime should be both correct and clear.


      If you’re writing fiction or you’re writing anything other than technical or scientific books or papers, spell out the word percent. Your readers will love you for it.

    • Jake Houck says:

      Thank you, Beth.

      Two percent symbols are a tad overkill, anyway.

      Would you accept the way the following is punctuated exactly as written? Nonfiction, of course—and I will refrain from asking these types of questions in the future.

      a 10-to-20%-a-year savings

  63. Denise Lasky says:


    I rigidly adhere to CMoS guidelines. The hyphen table lists “midthirties,” with no space between the words. Am I understanding this correctly? Would all of these be one word too? “Temps are expected to be in the midtwenties / midfifties / midfifties / midsixties / midseventies / mideighties / midnineties.” If so, they all look weird as one word. And would the following be one word as well (both as adjective and noun) following CMoS guidelines? midparagraph, midsentence, midcenter, midevening, midafternoon, midmorning.

    Hoping you’re able to reply. Have a nice day!

    • Denise, your examples are all correct. Treat mid as a prefix that is not hyphenated (except under certain conditions, also listed in CMOS).

      I admit that every once in a while I add the hyphen for some words in my articles here at the blog. I just don’t like the look of some words without the hyphen, and sometimes I worry that readers might have to reread a confusing phrase.

      Keep in mind that you do have discretion concerning style choices. Just be consistent over the length of a manuscript.

  64. Jake Houck says:

    Hi, Beth. Just to ensure I’ve got this and understand it correctly, full hyphenation (with “to”) is the way to go in these examples, correct? Tina’s initial question regarding this topic has sparked my interest.

    a group of 5-to-10-year-olds
    a group of five-to-ten-year-olds
    a group of 5-to-10-year-old kids
    thirty-to-thirty-five-mile commute
    ten-to-twenty-dollar donations

    In other words, anytime “to” is used in modifier ranges like above, hyphenate throughout.

    But if “and” or “or” is used, resort to suspended hyphenation. So the examples below are also correct, right?

    a group of 5- and 10-year-olds
    (Not: … 5-and-10-year-olds)
    a group of five- and ten-year-olds
    a group of 5- or 10-year-old kids
    twenty- or thirty-mile-radius
    (Not: twenty-or-thirty-mile radius)
    thirty and thirty-five-mile commutes
    ten- and twenty-dollar donations

    Is every example 100% correct above?

    Full hyphenation with “and” and “or” looks nice, too, but you won’t support that, will you?


  65. Jake Houck says:

    I think the only time we should use suspended hyphenation
    are in cases like these:

    ten-, twelve-, and fourteen-inch lengths
    twenty-, thirty-, and forty-year-olds
    five-, ten-, and fifty-gallon containers

    It looks nice (and better balanced) for the reader to use full hyphenation throughout with “to,” “and,” and “or” in my examples in the post just above this one. Or is it totally out of the question to use full hyphenation with “and” and “or”? In other words, just reserve suspension hyphens for ” and” or “or”? Thanks again, Beth. :-)

  66. Denise Lasky says:

    Chicago 16 uses lowercase nouns before numbers. Per their style, would you consider all of the following to be correct? If not, which do you disagree with? Per Chicago I think that all of them may be correct. (Sorry for the plethora of examples; I wanted to ensure that I covered most situations).

    It can be found in paragraph 2.

    Please refer to example 1.

    He has been a nuisance since day 1.

    She has stage 3 breast cancer.

    He is a level 1 sex offender.

    It happened during season 5.

    I loved episode 2.

    He was knocked out in round 1.

    She stole one hundred dollars from register 6.

    Please walk through terminal 5.

    He was assigned to store 159.

    Submit invoice 45323 as soon as possible.

    Refer to case number 123456-11.

    He messed up line 5 during act 3.

    I loved scene 2.

    But if a Roman numeral is involved, we’d go “up” style, correct?
    It can be found in Paragraph II.

    Please refer to Example IV.

    She has Stage IV breast cancer.

    He is a Level III sex offender.

    It happened during Scene V.

    And so on and so forth…..

    Thank you.

  67. Christina says:

    Hey Beth,

    am I daft or did I read this entire blog (as well as all the comments) and not see a reference to ages? haha. I did see in rule one to spell out anything under 100 but could it be a style choice not to? Definitely spell out in dialogue but what about in first person narrative? Ex. I’m a fifteen-year-old-baby vs I’m a 15-year-old baby. My ms deals with time and ages a lot and I’m wondering if it will be easier to use the numbers each time I mention ages…

    • Christina says:

      Is it also okay to use the numbers when I want the reader to “see” them in their mind? Ex. Numbers were carved into the side of the box: 3 2 1. I wasn’t sure what they meant…

      Please feel free to ignore if these questions have already been answered. I can go back through the blog/comments again, haha. Thanks!

      • The same answer can be applied here. Use your words to make readers see—don’t try to cut the reader’s imagination out of the reading process.

        Describe the way the numbers slant or the thickness of the ink or something special about the numbers if you have to. But don’t try to replace your words of description with a real visual.

        And if it doesn’t matter what the numbers look like, just leave your description at numbers carved into the box. If you need to show more, give more details.

        Three, two, one. The numbers, evenly separated, had been carved into the long side of the box with a sharp blade, leaving straight lines and smooth angles.

    • Christina, age does fall under the general rule, which is why I have no special section for it.

      You always have options for style choices, but I can’t see a reason for an exception for ages. Keep in mind that in fiction and even in creative nonfiction we’re using words and not symbols. You’re not creating visuals—which is why there’s no reason to use a special font to show the words from a kidnapper’s note. Let the reader use his or her imagination. You include the words; let readers create the visuals in their minds.

      • Christina says:

        Ah, ok. Thanks for both. I guess I’m having a hard time because my story deals with a protagonist who kind of changes the way she sees numbers based on a traumatic event that happened on a certain day of her life. Even the title has the numerals in it (like one of my faves, “1984”. Although I know this is a year…). She is basically obsessed with the meaning of numbers. But I guess it can get tricky…

  68. Tina Rossi says:

    Hi Beth,

    Would these words get hyphens when referring to approximations of time?
    One-ish, two-ish, three-ish,
    four-ish, five-ish, six-ish, seven-ish, eight-ish, nine-ish, ten-ish, eleven-ish, twelve-ish.

    If numbers are used, would it be:
    1-ish, 2-ish, 3-ish, etc.?

    Thank you.

    • Tina, you don’t have to use the hyphen with -ish with numbers spelled out. The words, with -ish as a suffix, work well—fourish, sevenish, elevenish, fortyish. (See the entry for ish in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.)

      For numerals, I’d use the hyphen. But I can’t see ever using a numeral with ish. I’d definitely rewrite.

      • Tina Rossi says:

        Even with “fiveish,” “nineish,” and “twelveish”?
        And would it be ” tenish” or tennish”?

        Thank you, Beth.

        • Yes, even with fiveish and nineish and so forth. And I’d go with tenish, although tennish is an alternate.

          Some writers use the form ten(ish). But in my opinion, this calls unnecessary attention to the word. Just add the -ish to the number and be done with it.

      • Tina Rossi says:

        Words ending in “e,” before the suffix “-ish,” may initially trip up the reader, so I think “three-ish,” “five-ish,” “nine-ish,” and “twelve-ish” are possible, yes or no? :-)


        a fifty-five-ish woman; she was fifty-five-ish
        She was fiftyish; He was eightyish.

        Twentyish, eighteenish, seventyish all look correct too. Do you concur?

        • Hyphenating numbers ending in -e is a possibility, but as I said, unnecessary. Just add the -ish.

          She was fiftyish, maybe fifty-fiveish. Her mother looked seventyish or so.

          If the words look odd—and some numbers would look decidedly odd in this format—rewrite.

  69. Phil Huston says:

    Thank you. Nobody says that enough. There is a quagmire out there of opinion, MLA, Chicago, blah blah blah. To find out that there are rules, and there are rules and opinions that conflict with any other set of rules. Somewhere in the middle is style. Thank you for saying that out loud. Now I can re-write and put what I want back in conversation and narrative that flows instead of what makes a rule happy. Whew. “Works of art make rules; rules don’t make works of art.” Claude Debussy. Thanks again.

    • Phil, there are seemingly contrary rules and opinions, but we can gain at least some idea for the rules to follow when we recognize that the rules are different for fiction and nonfiction, for formal and informal writing needs. Using the right source for our projects and needs is a good start.

      Still, there are always multiple options. And while some turn on the peculiarities of the type of writing project or the needs of a sentence, knowing the rules and the reasons for the rules can help use write in ways that are clear for readers. Consistency is helpful too, so readers don’t have to feel tossed around by our arbitrary choices.


      My advice is to learn the rules, learn the rationale behind those rules, and then use what works to best create the writing you want and need to create.

      Most of the time, the rules serve us well. But other times . . . that creativity of ours can definitely devise some marvelous works of art.

      Thanks for contributing, Phil.

  70. Jim Miller says:

    Hi Beth, and thanks for all this information. Very helpful, especially the bits about time and o’clock. I write military mystery novels and ofter need to write the time using the 24 hour clock. So, would I write 0800 hours or zero-eight hundred hours? And, because the soldiers are or were civilians, they have grown up using regular time. This means that there are occasions where I need to fall back on regular time – eight o’clock. Is it oaky to mix and match?

    • Jim, it would be okay to mix and match to adjust to the needs of the scene and the characters. That’s if we’re talking dialogue. So if Bob uses military time with his colleagues and 12-hour-clock time with his family, that works. If, however, the character typically thinks one time rather than the other, I suggest keeping the time references in his thoughts consistent to the way he sees time.

  71. Michelle says:

    Hi, Beth! This article has helped me so much with editing my novels. My questions are about Bible references: Should I use numerals for chapter numbers or write them out? In dialogue and in regular text? Should I use numerals for chapter and verses or write them out? Again, in dialogue and regular text? Thank you so much!

    • Michelle, what a great question. I can’t believe I didn’t include a reference to bible verses.

      For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

      Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

      Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

      Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

      In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

      Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

      In running text, spell out the book of the bible in full, no abbreviations (so Genesis, not Gen.).

      I’m not sure if I hit all the possible possibilities for bible verses—let me know if I missed one you were looking for. Thanks for the question.

  72. Eliza Dee says:

    In dialogue, would you spell out 9/11? It’s a date, but more precisely a specific historic event named for its date, and we see it written so often in that form that it might seem odd to spell it out. And if we do spell it out, because it’s an event, would you capitalize it or treat it in any special way? (E.g., we capitalize “the Fourth of July” because it’s a holiday, not just a date…)

    • Eliza, I can’t quote a source, but I’d suggest that 9/11 is okay in dialogue. If a character is referring to that date and that event, spelling it nine eleven might not be enough to show readers what the character is talking about. This exception to rules about spelling out numbers in dialogue should be noted in a style sheet.

  73. Jea says:


    Thank you for the wonderful information you’ve provided on numbers. My question is how would you write a medical number for blood pressure. Is it 100/80 or one hundred over eighty? Thank you.

  74. Alex says:

    Hello, thank you for this article and all the other useful resources in your blog.
    I’m doing my best to follow the rules you listed; but, sometimes, I still have doubts, as in this out-of-dialogue example:

    “She had to wait until the day after, because there was a 24-hour delay from the first airing time.”

    For some reason, in this case it doesn’t seem natural, to me, writing ‘twenty-four-hour delay’. It’s kind of weird, because I know that, if it was inside dialogue, I would not have a problem with that.
    (Also, off-topic: I’m not totally sure about that ‘from’; should it rather be ‘after’? English is not my native language.)

  75. Carmine says:

    Hi Beth,

    Extraordinary site–phenomenal.

    Do we hyphenate predicate adjectives after to-be verbs? See below.

    1. The technology is state-of-the-art.
    2. The new software is cutting-edge.
    3. The test is multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank(s).
    4. He was well-respected, well-known, well-heeled, and well-educated.
    5. The trip was ill-prepared and ill-fated.
    6. His explanation was in-depth.
    7. He was spot-on with his performance.
    8. He was on-point with his commentary.
    9. He was spot-on.
    10. He was on-point.

    I have numbered the examples for ease of response. Which examples, if any, would you omit the hyphens after the “be” verbs?

    A sincere thank-you.

  76. Carmine says:

    It just seems as though the hyphens in all examoles makes it easier for the reader to instantly parse these phrases after the “be” verbs. Do you concur?

  77. Eliza Dee says:


    I’m not Beth, but I’m bored so I’ll answer anyway. It depends on what style guide you’re using, but in Chicago style, used for most US fiction, most compound adjectives aren’t hyphenated after “to be,” but some “permanent compounds” that are listed in the dictionary (Webster’s 11th Collegiate is Chicago’s dictionary) are hyphenated. To make it more complicated, Chicago favors a sparser hyphenation style than that dictionary does, so some terms may be hyphenated in the dictionary but not in Chicago style. You can see their hyphenation table online here, which is a must-bookmark link for hyphen enthusiasts:

    For example, cutting-edge appears hyphenated in M-W, but Chicago specifically uses it as an example that wouldn’t be hyphenated (because it contains a participle plus a noun–see the linked table).

    Following Chicago, I’d hyphenate 1); the second example in 3) if just for clarity; 7) and 9) (as spot-on appears hyphenated in M-W, the hyphen aids clarity, and I see no contrary advice in CMOS). 4) and 5) would be open (per Chicago’s advice on “adjective + participle”); in 3) multiple choice would be open (see “adjective + noun”). In depth and on point are preposition + noun, not enumerated in Chicago, but they would be open as well. (On point appears as open in the dictionary, but even if it didn’t, there’s no compelling reason to hyphenate phrases along these lines–you wouldn’t say “I’m on-the-way home” or “He’s in-charge of the class” (well, some people might, but you shouldn’t)–the confusion comes because you often see on point and in depth before the noun, so the hyphen looks familiar and thus may feel right when it isn’t.)

  78. Carmine and Eliza, you’ve got a great discussion going on.

    For hyphenated words, I’d always check a dictionary first. Many of the examples you gave, Carmine, are permanently hyphenated. So no matter where they are, they get hyphens. If they’re not permanently hyphenated, check your style guide as Eliza said. CMOS doesn’t recommend hyphens after the noun, no matter what the verb. But for British English (BrE), we do hyphenate some compound adjectives after the noun (good-looking).

    You’ll find more on hyphenating compound words here.

  79. Eliza Dee says:

    Except that if you’re following Chicago, their rules trump the dictionary’s preferences, so even though “cutting-edge” and many other terms may be hyphenated in the dictionary, they’re open after the verb in Chicago. At 7.81: “When [compound modifiers] follow the noun they modify, hyphenation is usually unnecessary, even for adjectival compounds that are hyphenated in Webster’s (such as well-read or ill-humored).” And BrE hyphenation is quite different! I find myself consulting New Hart’s hyphenation rules every time I edit a BrE manuscript, just to be sure I’m doing it right.

    • But even for Chicago, the first bit of advice (in 7.77) is to say, “The first place to look for answers is the dictionary.” CMOS does disagree with Webster’s on occasion, but my suggestion is that if you find a word hyphenated in a current dictionary (a good one, that is, and one that you normally use), then it’s safe to go with hyphens. Otherwise you’d be checking multiple dictionaries and multiple style guides. And while an editor may do that, a writer probably shouldn’t have to unless a word was particularly troublesome.

      And as you said, Eliza, BrE and AmE are different, so the writer or editor needs to be aware of cultural differences.

  80. Beth –

    Forgive me if you’ve mentioned this above, but what about writing out scores in fiction? I.e., a fiction scene of someone at a sporting event?

    The Mets beat the Braves 8-1.
    The Mets beat the Braves eight to one.

    Thank you for your time!

    • Deirdre, a good question. And one I haven’t addressed yet.

      For fiction, the general rule is to use words for numbers in the majority of cases. Yet we know that there are exceptions that make the read easier for readers.

      CMOS doesn’t address the issue (that I can find), although they do show a ball score—with numerals—in an example for the en dash.

      Hart’s does suggest using numerals for game scores and sporting events—their example is “a 3-1 defeat.”

      Gregg’s also shows the scores of ball games with numerals, yet their example includes the word “to” rather than the en dash—3 to 1. But Gregg’s ball-score notation is included in a section for a writing style (figure style—advertising, journalism, and technical/scientific writing) that emphasizes figures for numerals rather than numbers that are spelled out. In the section that covers “word style”—a category in which they put writing of a “literary nature”—there is no exception for using numerals in place of words for ball scores.

      Gregg’s points out that numerals may be used in informal situations and for emphasis and when the numbers “need to stand out for quick comprehension.” Gregg’s is referring to “figure style” with that last quote, but I think that you can transfer that to any style decision.

      For dialogue, I’d spell out the score, especially if it’s the only one mentioned in the paragraph or sentence of dialogue. If a character is rattling off a string of scores, you may want to use numerals to help readers out.

      For narrative, I think you’ve got an argument for either words or numerals. If there’s only one score mentioned, spelling out the words may be quite acceptable. But if you’ve got a string of them, try the numerals (but use “to” rather than the en dash). If a character is a sports nut and scores will be mentioned throughout the story, you may want to decide to go with numerals at every mention of a score.

      Yet for a single mention in a story? Either option would be acceptable. I tend to lean toward words since characters speak and think words, not symbols, yet there are those exceptions.

      Style choice is a legitimate rationale for choosing one option over another. Just make sure you know the consequences of your choices—you want clarity for the reader and not confusion—and make sure you’re consistent throughout the story.

  81. Stephen says:

    I have a quotation with a numeric range in it… I have no idea how to format it. The quote was, “There were three to five hundred people on the ship.” The problem is that the speaker meant 300 to 500 people. It was clear in context, but written down, it is confusing. Normally there’s no hyphen in “five-hundred”, but I’ve been thinking it would be clearer to write “There were three- to five-hundred people on the ship.”
    Any suggestions?