Nine, ten, 11, 12… Nielsen on numbers

It seems to be a UK standard that you write the numbers from one to ten as words, but anything from 11 upwards should be written as figures. I’ve had drummed into me in several workplaces, and I’ve forced it on others; it’s also in the Economist and Times style guides. (The Guardian says numbers begin at 10… typically awkward.) But Jakob Nielsen makes a good case for a different approach, based on semantics and skim-reading.

In essence, he favours using figures in any situation where you’re referring to an exact number, including single figures; but to say ‘hundreds’ or ‘thousands’ as words, because you’re using those words as vague descriptions of a quantity, rather than a precise number. It’s hard to argue with the logic in this; but I wonder if I’m too ingrained in the old way to change now?

5 thoughts on “Nine, ten, 11, 12… Nielsen on numbers”

  1. The Telegraph also prefers 10 to ten. The style book says:
    Spell out numbers below 10: one, nine, first fourth, 17th, 123rd, 999. One million, two million, 10 million, 999 million. Give broken millions in full only when it is misleading to decimalise to two places; 2,736,123 but prefer 2.74 million.

  2. We start numerals at 11 at the Telegraph too. (At least I think we do – it’s a bit of a style blackspot for me, that one.)
    I could probably get used to Jakob’s rule – after all, the existing newspaper style, as with so many elements of style, is somewhat arbitrary – but one thing I’ll never be able to accept is a sentence that begins with a numeral. That always looks wrong.

  3. You see what I mean? Ian beat me to the post and demonstrated my ignorance of style into the bargain.
    Just for that, I’m in favour of scrapping the rule.

  4. Alright Shane, outside, now. Although God knows you’re right about starting a sentence with a number.
    And of course no one knows what a Terabyte is. Who know what a Gb was until a couple of years ago?

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