Using Only Digits to Express All Numbers

I’ve written several posts, most recently here, about why it’s a bad idea to use both words and digits to express a number. This post is about something else relating to numbers: the notion that you should use only digits to express all numbers.

I’ve long recommend that you use words for numbers one through ten and digits for 11 and up. That’s consistent with all authorities I’ve consulted, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern American Usage, although the point at which the shift from words to digits occurs varies.

Well, in a recent exchange on Twitter with @CherylStephens, she took it for granted that the clearest way to express numbers was to use only digits. Intrigued, I badgered her (sorry, Cheryl) to point me to an authority to that effect, and she came up with this 2003 article by Robert Eagleson in the journal Clarity.

Here, in a couple of short extracts, is the gist of it:

In legal documents—as in most documents—it is the quantity or value expressed by a number that is significant for readers. Printing numbers as figures rather than as words helps readers grasp the message more readily.

For all its widespread acceptance among writers and editors, the convention that certain numbers must occur as words has a strong streak of irrationality about it. Its persistence despite this attribute probably arises because few have closely analysed formulations of the convention but have simply bowed to it on the word or command of others.

But I encourage you to read the entire article. It reflects an approach I’ve attempted to bring to bear to a narrower topic, contract prose: figure out what makes sense, and the heck with conventional wisdom and habit.

But that said, here’s my take on this.

For purposes of contracts, I’m sticking with the conventional approach. I’m inflicting all sorts of change on people when it comes to contract usages. I don’t want to make my job harder by proposing an aggressive change to a general-writing usage.

But looking at the issue generally, I haven’t seen anyone attempt to justify the words-shifting-to-digits approach. I’ll now take a crack at it:

Using digits is redolent of prose used in numbers-heavy fields. Mathematics. Science. Accounting. And so on. It can seem intrusive to have the world of numbers intrude in general prose, as in We ordered only 1 pizza.

Why, in that case, the shift to digits? Because with larger numbers, digits are that much easier to read than the word equivalent. And with bigger numbers, you’re more likely to be in a numbers world.

So words-shifting-to-digits is an aesthetic choice. Would it be more efficient to use only digits? Yes. Is that efficiency worth overturning the current convention? I’m not convinced that it is. For my own writing, I’m sticking with We ordered only one pizza.

And I’d be wary of announcing that all-digits is “plain language” and words-shifting-to-digits is not. This is an issue at the fringes, one about which reasonable people can reach different conclusions. Labeling use of words-shifting-to-digits as not “plain language” risks suggesting that the world of plain language is for absolutists.

My thanks to Cheryl for bringing this issue to my attention.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.