Working With Numbers, the AP Writing Style Way
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
I’m not a numbers girl.
I used to be somewhat decent at them. And I still like them very much even though adding two and two can sometimes scare me. (That’s barely an exaggeration.)
But don’t ever ask me to try to figure out a percentage that isn’t 10%, 25%, 50% or 100%. If you want a correct answer, that is. And woe to the person who thinks they can rely on me to solve any kind of equation a high schooler can understand.
It’s just not going to play out well.
What I will tell you about numbers, however, is how to write them out. This is something that tends to confuse other people, which is understandable. There are some truly ridiculous rules governing the “proper” writing out of numbers in a sentence.
I won’t defend them, only point them out. Then I’ll commiserate with you about how contrived they can be.
But contrived or not, you could find yourself penalized – perhaps by some annoying editorial type – if you don’t follow the number-writing rules according to a certain standard.
So it’s best to have at least some idea before you write them out. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to go with AP Writing Style. Because that's the one I was personally indoctrinated with.
One of the most basic rules is that you’re supposed to write out the numbers one through nine. Anything 10 or higher, however, should be presented as a numeral.
Simple enough, right? Yet there are several exceptions to the rule. Because why would the AP Writing Style overlords make it too easy? Or easy at all?
If a number comes first in a sentence, it needs to be a word. So if your sentence is something such as, “100 cats roamed the narrow alley,” you should change it to “One hundred cats roamed the narrow alley.” (This exception also applies to exceptions two and three.)
If the figure in question is a round million, billion or trillion… it doesn’t matter if it’s 1 million, 2 billion, or 9 trillion. The number should be a numeral.
If you’re referring to a date, address, dollar amount or percentage, it should be a numeral no matter what. The same goes for highways, speeds, dimensions, times and temperatures, according to the AP Writing Style.
Notably, said stylist also says to write out ages for living creatures, human or otherwise… but not for inanimate objects.
To me, that’s taking it way too far. The AP and its ilk are power-hungry narcissists who live to make themselves feel better by making others’ existence difficult.
Pick one or the other, I say. And more power to you when you do.
Here’s one that, to my knowledge, doesn’t have any exceptions to it.
When you’re writing out a decade but you want to sound less stodgy, don’t put the apostrophe after the number. You put it before, believe it or not.
By this, I mean “the ‘80s” instead of “the 80’s.”
Not only are there no (known?) exceptions to the rule, but this one actually makes sense. You’re pluralizing the year to create a series of years, not making it possessive.
In other number-writing news, when you’re using decimals, it’s usually advisable to do so by just two. So it would be 78.17 instead of 78.172 or 78.169, for instance.
Oh, and the AP Writing Style says to write out the word “percentage.” Which I hate for some reason. So I don’t do.
Honestly, there are a lot of arbitrary rules out there and many interchangeable ones depending on who you ask.
Mainly, you just want to pick a style and stay consistent with it.
Unless you hate one of the rules for some reason. Then feel free to go rouge, accepting that there might be consequences to such daring if you do.