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Numbers Or Words In An Essay

By David Becker

So far we have covered the general differences between MLA and APA styles and reviewed how their rules differ when creating in-text citations and reference list entries. However, a reader asked that we cover another difference between the two styles: how they present numbers, particularly ranges of numbers. I’m happy to oblige!

The two styles have very different rules for when to write numbers as words or numerals. MLA Style spells out numbers that can be written in one or two words (three, fifteen, seventy-six, one thousand, twelve billion) and to use numerals for other numbers (; 584; 1,001; 25,000,000). APA Style, on the other hand, generally uses words for numbers below 10 and numerals for numbers 10 and above.

However, the MLA Handbook further notes that science writers frequently use numerals for various kinds of data, such as units of measurement and statistical expressions, regardless of size. This is similar to APA Style’s rules for presenting numerical data (see pages 111–114 in the Publication Manual for more detail).

In ranges of numbers, MLA Style includes the entire second number for numbers up to 99 (1-12; 25-29; 75-99) but uses only the last two digits of the second number for larger numbers, unless more are needed (95-105; 105-19; 2,104-08; 5,362-451). Ranges of years beginning in 1000 AD have their own rules: If the first two digits of both years are the same, include only the last two digits of the second year (1955-85; 2004-09). Otherwise, both numbers should be fully written out (1887-1913; 1998-2008).

APA Style does not have explicit rules for ranges of numbers, except for when referring to a page range or a range of dates in a reference list entry. Numerous examples in Chapter 7 of the Publication Manual show both numbers in a page range being written out in full, regardless of size, and example 23 on page 204 demonstrates the same concept applied to a range of years. These rules relate to APA Style’s emphasis on the importance of specificity and clarity in scientific writing. Thus, a range of numbers (10–40; 101–109; 5,000–5,025; 90,013–90,157) or dates (1999–2003; 2009–2012) should never be abbreviated.

I hope that this post will help those of you transitioning from MLA Style to APA Style the next time you need to include numbers in your research papers. Be sure to also check out our series of posts on numbers and metrication and our FAQ page on when to express numbers as words. If there’s still some residual confusion about numbers or any other difference between the two styles, please comment on this post, drop us a note on Twitter or Facebook, or contact us directly. Your question may be the subject of a future post!

The rules for using numbers in academic writing vary among academic disciplines. The conventions described here are for non-technical academic prose where numbers are not a significant focus. Scientific and technical writing will have their own conventions and students should consult a manual dedicated to those standards. The main rules about the use of numbers in standard academic writing are about:

Grammar checkers will not help you with the acceptable presentation of numbers in academic writing. You need to know and use the conventions for writing numbers correctly when you are writing and proofreading your work.

When to write numbers in words

Write in words all numbers under one hundred, rounded numbers and ordinal numbers

For general academic writing, you need to write these numbers in words: all numbers under one hundred (e.g. ninety-nine) rounded numbers (e.g. four hundred, two thousand, six million) and ordinal numbers (e.g. third, twenty-fifth). Exceptions: see below, When to write numbers in digits

The country had been at war for twenty-five years.

Over four hundred soldiers were sent to the war zone.

The thirty-eighth battalion was sent to the war zone for the fourth time.

Write in words numbers beginning a sentence

Either write the number in words or, if that’s awkward, then rewrite the sentence to avoid beginning the sentence with a numeral. Exception: You can begin a sentence with a date.

INCORRECT:130 student volunteers joined the university peace mission.

CORRECT:One hundred and thirty student volunteers joined the university peace mission.

INCORRECT:75 percent of the rental properties were occupied by students.

CORRECT: Students occupied 75 percent of the rental properties in the town.

CORRECT:2008 was a good year to commence university studies.

Write in words approximate numbers and some times of the day

In non-technical academic writing, write in words the number for approximate figures (including fractions) and for full, half and quarter hour times.

  • about half the students; a quarter of the university; four times as often; hundreds of times
  • six o’clock, half past six, quarter past seven, quarter to nine, midday, midnight

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When to write numbers in digits

SituationGeneral ruleExamples
Numbers above 100Use digits.I counted 3968 books on the shelves.
MoneyUse digits for exact amounts but digits and words for rounded and large amounts.$24.28 (exact amount); 98 dollars; $15 million (rounded and large amounts)
MeasurementsUse digits with a measurement symbol.32 °C or 32 degrees centigrade; 6 cm or 6 centimetres
DecimalsGive exact amounts in digits.0.45 not .45; 2.36
SurveysWrite survey results in digit form.A survey of participants revealed that 4 out of 5 students worked.
ScoresWrite scores in digit form.Students scored from 8 to 75 out of 100.
StatisticsUse digits to describe statistical information.The survey focused on 90 teachers, 10 principals and 24 auxiliary staff from 20 different schools.
DatesUse this order (day/month/year) consistently.Tuesday 23 February 2008
Spans of numbersUse digitspages: 56–74, 115–117; years: 1864–1899, 1998–2008; streets: 36–99 Spa St
Divisions in a bookUse digits to refer to divisions in books and plays.volume 5, chapter 6, page 45; act 2, scene 4

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When there is a choice between words and digits

In the following situations, there is a degree of choice open to you. In such circumstances, it is of critical importance that you are consistent: choose one format and use it throughout.

SituationGeneral ruleExamples
PercentagesUse 55%, 55 percent or fifty-five percentOver 55% of students passed the examination.
FractionsWrite in digits or words. If you use words, join the fraction parts with a hyphen.¾ or three-quarters
Eras (time spans)Choose from a variety of formats, but be consistent.the eighteenth century or the 18th century; from the 1960s to the 1990s; during the 2000s; in 2300 BC; in 1770 AD
Time of dayChoose from a variety of formats, but be consistent. If you are not using am or pm, then write out the time in words. For midday and midnight, write in words—do not use 12 am and 12 pm.9 am or 9.00 am or 8.22 pm; the eight-thirty bus; four o’clock in the afternoon

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How to avoid confusion with numbers in a sentence

Avoid confusion when using two numbers together (run-on numbers) or when dealing with several numbers in a single sentence by:

There were 32 third-grade students participating in the test.

The computer laboratory has 24 thirty-centimetre monitors.

In the region where the 1500 dollar a year support allowance was given for each student’s fees, at least 28 million people lived.

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How to write numbers correctly

There are particular conventions which apply, depending on whether you are required to express numbers using digits or words.

Expressing numbers using digits
  1. Numbers 1–9999 do not use spaces or commas (e.g. 3333 – no spaces for four-digit numbers).
  2. Numbers 10 000–999 999 have a single space between the hundreds and thousands (e.g. There were 287 701 participants in the survey.).
  3. Numbers from 1 000 000 have a single space between millions and thousands, and between thousands and hundreds (e.g. The population of this Australian city was 2 467 789 on the 3 December 2008.).
Expressing numbers using words
  1. Numbers greater than 999 have a comma after the word thousand and after the word million (e.g. 3 206 411 = three million, two hundred and six thousand, four hundred and eleven).
  2. Two-digit numbers and fractions use hyphens (e.g. 94 = ninety-four; ¾ = three-quarters).

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