Last week, while editing several dozen pages for a client, I replaced all spelled out numbers with numerals (4 instead of four, for example). I was reminded of their style guide (One downside to freelancing is trying to remember everyone’s style guides), so I changed them back. I thought the reason why I changed it in the first place could make a good blog post topic:

When writing for the web, use numerals instead of words to represent numbers.

Before I get into the reasoning behind this tip, I want to highlight the standard for writing in print.

From the Chicago Manual of Style:

In nontechnical contexts, Chicago advises spelling out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers,” (9.2) and “Many publications, including those in scientific or journalistic contexts, follow the simple rule of spelling out only single-digit numbers and using numerals for all others.” (9.3)

David Becker, a development editor at APA Books, states:

MLA Style spells out numbers that can be written in one or two words (three, fifteen, seventy-six, one thousand, twelve billion) and to use numerals for other numbers (2¾; 584; 1,001; 25,000,000). APA Style, on the other hand, generally uses words for numbers below 10 and numerals for numbers 10 and above.

The 2010 Associated Press Stylebook (p. 203) agrees:

Spell out whole numbers up to (and including) nine (e.g., zero, one, 10, 96, 104).

It’s common practice in print writing to spell out numbers under 10, so this client’s style guide is on par with what most everyone else does.

But that’s for print.

What works for print isn’t always what works for web. When writing for the web, use numerals instead of spelling out the number. Here’s why:

According to world-renowned usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, “most website users don’t read all your words. Instead, they scan the text and pick out headlines, highlighted words, bulleted lists, and links.” Regarding numbers, his organization’s research concluded that “numerals often stop the wandering eye and attract fixations, even when they’re embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore.”

Here, Jakob explains more in detail why numerals work better than spelling out the number:

Why do users fixate on numerals? Because numbers represent facts, which is something users typically relish. Sometimes people are looking for specific facts, such as a product’s weight or size, so product pages are certainly one place where you should write numbers as numerals. But even when a number doesn’t represent a product attribute, it’s a more compact (and thus attractive) representation of hard information than flowery verbiage.

How do users’ eyes locate numerals while skipping past words? The shape of a group of digits is sufficiently different from that of a group of letters to stand out to users’ peripheral vision before their foveal vision fixates on them. 2415 looks different than four even though both consist of 4 characters. (As the previous sentence shows, stating the number of characters as a numeral makes it stand out, even without the bold highlighting.)

Using numerals to represent numbers helps your readers pick out important facts while they scan your page. They also help users recall those figures at a later date.

The work I was editing for this client will be web-based in its final form, and that’s why I replaced all the spelled out numbers as numerals.

What do you think? Do you use numerals for small numbers when writing for the web? Let me know in the comments below.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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