Tuesday, November 5

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 05, 2013 8 comments
We all know where to turn for help with writing words correctly in our stories--a dictionary. But how about numbers?

How you should write time? 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out amounts in fiction, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000? What about ages? Dates?

Photo credit: dancerinthedark from morguefile.com
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. Agents and editors won't 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. And if you self-publish, you'll need to discuss "house style" with any freelance editing professional you hire.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had those rules pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more natural 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. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2012. 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. This is something I always have struggled with- thanks for this!

  2. I think your recommendations are great!

    1. Thanks. Writers can get themselves tied in knots about these kinds of judgment calls. It's nice to have a definitive source like a style book to rely on.

  3. You know, it's amazing how many times I've struggled with this myself!! Thank you for posting on it, and for all of the great information and advice. It helps!

  4. I've learned both MLA style and AP style, so I'm familiar with both. Just like you stated, I've always been told that the most important thing is to remain consistent with whatever style you choose!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    1. I'd love to know what stylebook the big NY houses prefer. MLA is academia-oriented, and AP for journalism. Indeed, consistency is key.