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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