For Adjacent Numbers–Figures, Words, or Both?

Which is correct: two 2-room apartments, 2 two-room apartments, 2 2-room apartments, or two two-room apartments? 

In business writing classes, people often ask whether to use words or figures for adjacent numbers like those. What do you think?

Here's advice from The Gregg Reference Manual (Gregg):

When two numbers come together and one is part of a compound modifier, express one of the numbers in figures and the other in words. As a rule, spell out the first number unless the second number would make a significantly shorter word. 

The Microsoft Manual of Style says it this way:

When two numbers that refer to separate categories must appear together, spell out one of them. Example: ten 12-page booklets. 

Applying that advice, which is correct in the apartment example above? 

The best choice is "two 2-room apartments"; "2 two-room apartments" is possible but not preferred according to Gregg. We know that "2 2-room" and "two two-room" don't work. 

Test yourself on the examples below. Which ones are correct? Then scroll down to compare your answers with mine. 

sixty $10 bills

2 thirty-page manuals

three four-column tables 

500 4-color brochures 

five $50 gift certificates 

100 two-euro coins 

five one-room studios

three 12-story buildings 

twelve 3-story buildings

six 4-volume sets 

 

How many seem correct to you? I followed The Gregg Reference Manual rule and picked six of them. Check yours again before comparing your answers with mine. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sixty $10 bills
Correct. Spelling out the first word makes sense. Even though the word sixty is slightly longer than the word ten, the number 10 applies to currency, which is typically rendered in figures. The expression "60 ten dollar bills" would work, but it looks less crisp and businesslike.

2 thirty-page manuals
Wrong. This version is correct: two 30-page manuals. 

three four-column tables
Wrong. One of the words should be spelled out, preferably the first one: three 4-column tables. 

500 4-color brochures
Wrong. One of the words should be spelled out: 500 four-color brochures. 

five $50 gift certificates
Correct. Spelling out the first word follows Gregg's rule. 

100 two-euro coins
Correct. This version also seems fine: one hundred €2 coins. 

five one-room studios
Wrong. One number should be spelled out, preferably the first one: five 1-room studios. 

three 12-story buildings
Correct. It follows Gregg. 

twelve 3-story buildings
Correct. It has the first word spelled out, following Gregg's rule. However, I would prefer "12 three-story buildings" because it follows typical number renderings, with the large number in figures. 

six 4-volume sets
Correct. It follows Gregg

Do you agree with my decisions? Let me know how your answers differ and why. 

If other number rules make your head spin, let me know. I'll try to clear them up for you. 

If you need to sharpen your skills as a proofreader, take my courses Proofread Like a Pro and Punctuation for Professionals.

Lynn
Syntax Training

9 COMMENTS

  1. It is never correct to start a sentence with a digit. (2 of us went fishing).

    While we’re talking about numbers, what about using July 21 vs July 21st? The -st/-nd/-rd suffixes seem superfluous. What if all printed calendars had 1st, 2nd, 3rd? Yikes!

  2. I agree with your decisions. The only one that seems to flow better without following the rule is “500 4-color brochures.” Five hundred is a little long when spelled out, and four-color seems more clumsy than 4-color.

  3. Hi Bart,

    Starting a sentence with a number–you are correct, but there is one exception according to certain style manuals. They allow figures for a year at the start of a sentence, as in “2016 has been a good year for the firm.”

    Ordinal endings are incorrect for month-day dates such as July 21.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynn

  4. Lynn,

    >>This version also seems fine: one hundred €2 coins. << This example brings up an additional consideration: Know your audience. If this sentence is for an American audience, many would not know what the "€" symbol stands for or how to pronounce it. In that case, I would recommend "100 two-euro coins." Keep in mind that 64% of Americans have never left the US.

  5. In a related issue, I think the general rule is words for numbers up to ten and numerals thereafter. But I think it looks slightly awkward to make that change mid-sentence. I’d like to hear how you and your readers feel about breaking that rule in situations like “seven, nine, and 11.”

  6. Hi Olivia,

    Most style guides agree with you and render the numbers consistently if the items are the same, for example:

    “Ten people walked to the farmers market, and twelve took the bus.”

    “The Associated Press Stylebook,” however, renders small and large numbers differently even when they describe the same thing.

    Lynn

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