Thursday, December 09, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 09, 2010 16 comments
Dear Editor-on-Call,

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you
a.k.a. Margo Berendsen of Writing at High Altitude

Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time
AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages
AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2004. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2002.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?


  1. I really hope these kinds of little things don't matter too much, because if they do then there's no way to win.

  2. I try to avoid both as much as possible--b/c I'm unsure! LOL~

    But I agree w/*be consistent.* At least that way, search-replace will catch them all if you have to use it... Yes? ;o) <3

  3. So helpful! I've always wondered about this time thing.

  4. Interesting post; I'd wondered about these things. Thanks for the clarification!

    I have a question about the clock one, though: if you're writing in relation to a particular group/organization, like the military for example, which uses 24-hour time, do you use what they use, or change it?

  5. Awesome. I always wondered if there was one preferred over the other. Nice to know, not really! But you're right. Writing out the time in words instead of numbers did read more smoothly.

  6. Angela: To a degree these things do matter. The point isn't to tie yourself in knots, but simply pick a system and stick to it. It shows folks in the industry that you take your work seriously. :-)

    Leigh: When in doubt, pick up a few novels and see how they do it. Works for me.

    Lydia: It seems kind of genre specific, doesn't it? Glad it was useful.

    GE: I'm such a die-hard civilian, I didn't think to address that! But Europeans also use 24 hour time, at least on train timetables. For military milieu, do use their convention--it will sound most authentic.

    Colene: Every house has its own style guide--without it in hand, you have to just use discernment. Sounds like you've picked your style. Excellent!

  7. I love your Dear Editor posts. I always learn something. :-)

  8. Ah, super helpful! I'm always struggling with numbers. Good point to keep it consistent no matter what. Thanks for the advice!

  9. Thanks Laurel. Useful to know. Especially,

    AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.)

    I didn´t know capitals were out.

  10. Shannon: I sadly still have a significant backlog of questions to address since my 202 cool contest back in September. I'm slowly getting there...

    Shelley: From the editor's chair, I can say consistency tells me an author is mindful of details and careful, which makes a hugely good impression.

    Carmen: I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I had to search and replace AM with a.m. I think the former is not the style because it is also a designation for radio stations (AM and FM). Using the lower case always with times makes that more clear.

  11. This is a great refresher on how to use numbers in fiction--Thanks!

  12. A great reminder! I *know* the rules, but I don't always remember to incorporate them properly.

  13. This was really helpful ! I'm really impressed you took the time to answer my question.

  14. GE: Glad you found this post useful.

    Elle: You're welcome. :-)

    Vicki: consistency is key. Nothing makes us editors so crazy as an author who handles a particular issue six different ways.

  15. Great post. I prefer to write it out, it looks neater and the consistency thing I guess is the best advice. Thanks :O)