It’s a digital world: use digits for numbers
Rules versus usability when writing numbers in text
What if everything you ever learned about spelling out numbers was useless?
I strongly believe that we should all use digits for numbers, regardless of whether we are writing for online or for other media and of whether we are writing small numbers or big ones. The old conventions about spelling out numbers are silly, obsolete and … well, just plain dumb.
In general, English language and grammar rules are helpful. As a writer, I find that most of those rules have a clear logic behind them and that knowing and following the rules helps me write texts that are easier to read and understand.
But the generally-accepted rules about numbers are inconsistent, unclear and unhelpful
The rules about spelling out numbers are arbitrary and inconsistent
A 5-minute search will prove to you that there is no consensus in English on how to write numbers in text. In fact, it all seems rather arbitrary, if not downright useless. Styleguides disagree on:
- which numbers should be spelled out: 1-9, 1-10, 1-20, or even 1-99; round numbers like 20 or 50; only multiples of 100; etc.
- whether to write three hundred thousand, 300 thousand or 300,000
- whether or not you should spell out numbers at the start of a sentence.
Meanwhile, usability experts recommend using digits for all numbers, claiming that they stand out more easily and the brain processes them more quickly.
So which advice should writers follow?
It seems to me that today, when most of us read more on screens than on paper (regardless of the channel the text was originally created for), the answer is obvious. We have so much information to process in a day, why slow down our reading just to obey some arbitrary and archaic rules?
Moreover, if digits are easier to read than numbers spelled out, and the old rules are all arbitrary anyway, why restrict this great usability trick to texts intended for reading on-screen?
So I believe the time has come to let go of the old rules and start writing for today’s readers: use digits for numbers, always.
It’s just a matter of time: 1 day we’ll be used to it *.
* Well, that’s just being provocative. You could argue that “1 day” means “some/any day” rather than a specific quantity of days and you should therefore use the word one rather than the digit 1. Usability experts also state that non-specific numbers can be spelled out.
Sometimes, the best rule of all is use your common sense.