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.

10 thoughts on “Using Only Digits to Express All Numbers”

    • Mark:

      I object on the ground that anything calling for communist A4 paper and measuring things in godless centimeters is too unAmerican to have any remote chance of being right.


  1. I don’t feel very strongly about it, but there is certainly merit in using all digits in contracts, not because of pure logic but because of how contracts are used. Documenting a business transaction any more complicated than ordering a pizza (and I will say that even ordering a pizza in a polyglot country is facilitated when you use figures that are constant in any language) is usually something to do with numbers, certainly more so than literature. It’s much easier, for example, for a contract administrator skimming a document to pick out digits to populate fields like notice periods, support response times and other “key performance indicators” (hate that term), than to scan through sections looking for stray words.

    What might seem jarring in a newspaper article (which after all is what the CMS is for) should not be considered dispositive for purposes of a contract.

    • My post relates to writing in general. For contracts, thus far my concession has been limited to doing the shift to digits earlier than recommended in some usage guides. But if enough people are of your view, I could countenance doing the digits-only thing. Watch this space.

  2. Ken:

    I write out numbers below 10 because I use numbers to enumerate clauses (actually sub-clauses, but you get the point). If I also use numbers in sentences, I end up tripping the reader, who — on a quick skim — might see the number as an indication of an enumerated clause. That possibility is much more remote with numbers over nine (because anything with more than nine enumerated clauses probably needs a re-write).

    Also, the longest written-out number between one and ten has five letters. Once you get to 11, the letter count starts going up dramatically, so the amount of space saved by using digits increases.


  3. One disadvantage of using digits instead of words for the numbers from one to nine (or ten, depending on where you draw the line) relates to the effect of the typeface. I happen to like Gill Sans MT as a typeface. I find it’s cleaner and more pleasing than Calibri or Arial. But one disadvantage it has is that the number “1” displays exactly as does the capital “I.”

    As a result, your sample sentence would display as “We ordered exactly I pizza.” And that is not going to encourage comprehension!

  4. Opinion today in Oregon involving another kind of bad numbering — giving both the English measurement and the decimal form (and screwing up the conversion to decimal because except for computing 1/3 the lawyer is helpless with fractions). [7/8 is 0.875, not .625.]

    312 Or App 424

    To confirm his visual assessment, Walker measured the shaft. Its diameter was 1 7/8 inches (1.625 inches), making half of the diameter equal to 15/16 of an inch (0.9375 inch). From the end of the shaft to where it entered the conveyor through the stationary bearing was 1 7/8 inches (1.625 inches), which exceeded one-half of the shaft’s diameter. So measured, the shaft end did not comply with 29 CFR § 1910.219(c)(4)(i).


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