Ask the Book Doctor: About Numerals

Wednesday, December 27, 2023
Image by rawpixel at Freepik

By Bobby Christmas

Q: With 9/11 and 24/7 prevalent in journalism, it seems odd not to write it with a virgule (slash) in fiction, even though Chicago Style and editors warn prose writers to avoid virgules. Won’t nine-eleven stand out as odd, if it were not in dialogue?

A: I must remind writers that in creative writing we have guidelines and recommendations but no absolute rules. You can write any way you want, although the books that get published do tend to stay within recommended guidelines. I don’t recommend writing nine-eleven, though. Instead write it out as month and day—September 11—and I’m sure it will have the same impact and recognition as the numerals 9/11. If you don’t like it written as a month and day despite the guidelines for Chicago style and you prefer the numbers, by all means use the slash and move on. Your eventual editor may still change it, but in my opinion using such recognizable terms such as 9/11 or 24/7 probably won’t get your work rejected.

Q: Which of the following is right? I have a bet with my coworkers.

1. John came in No. 1 in the race.
2. John came in number one in the race.
3. John came in number-one in the race.
4. John came in number 1 in the race. 
5. John came in #1 in the race.

A: Chicago style, the style book publishers use, writes out the words for numbers one through one hundred. The first sentence uses the numeral incorrectly and also relies on an abbreviation. Chicago style avoids abbreviations whenever possible.

Sentence number two is correct.

Sentence number three has an incorrect hyphen.

Sentence number four handles the numeral incorrectly; it should be written out.

Sentence number five uses a symbol instead of words.

Chicago style avoids symbols and abbreviations whenever possible; however, abbreviations or symbols for a unit of measure are an exception. For a unit of measure the quantity is always written as a numeral. 9 V, 10o F. Always space between the numeral and the abbreviation or symbol.

By the way, Chicago style spells out the word “percent” in running copy—charts and graphs not included—but uses the numeral before the word “percent.” Example: Only 9 percent of the voters said they preferred soup over sandwiches.

Q: I know that Chicago style spells out numerals one through one hundred, but in dialogue do I have to write something like this: “Were you nineteen in nineteen fifty-three?”

A: No. Chicago style does have exceptions to its rule on numerals. Dates are an exception. Correct: “Were you nineteen in 1953?”

Other exceptions include but aren’t limited to the following:

Numbers with decimal points can be used as numbers in narrative, but not in dialogue. The average age of dogs is 12.1 years. Tom said, “The average age of dogs is twelve point one years.”

Approximate numbers above one hundred are also written out, whereas exact ones are in numbers. We spent a thousand dollars on airfare, but only $242.50 on food for the trip.


Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. She will answer your questions too. Send them to or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at


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