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What’s in a number?

headshot2013I often get asked about numbers – when to write them and when to use numerals. It’s as if we all have a sort of memory of having been told there is a rule but can’t quite remember what it is. Traditionally numbers up to 10 should be written. If they are over ten, you can use numerals so 11 onwards for example. However, there was then the quandary of what to do if you had both in the same piece of writing. Should you, for instance, write nine boys jumped through 12 hoops?
So the powers that be decided that you could use either, but you should stay with one or other rather than muddle them in your document.

Of course, just to confuse you, you can use numerals when describing distance or time or weight. If the number is at the start of a sentence or part of a word you must spell it. For example “Forty-five students attended college” “I have a hundred things to finish before I go home”. Oh and you should never start a sentence with a year so you should write: “The year 2001 was great for me” not “2001 was a great year for me.”


We have problems with other words linked to numbers too.

How about biannually and biennially? If you are a keen gardener, you probably know the answer to this especially if you read the back of seed packets.

For example, what is the difference between number and amount? Well put simply we use ‘number’ when we can count the items and use ‘amount’ for quantity. So for example, we could say “there was a large amount of food delivered but only a small number of plates”.

Another is when to use less and when to use fewer. ‘Fewer’ is when you can count the items so “a fewer number” and less is “a smaller quantity”. A well-known supermarket was caught out a few years ago when they created big signs saying 10 items or less at some of the tills. The pedants went on the rampage, and the supermarket was forced to withdraw the signs and change them for ones saying 10 items or fewer which can be seen to this day. Some supermarkets don’t learn though as Morrisons recently joined in with their brand new signs.



Charlotte is the author of the Useful Guide to Communicating Effectively published by the British Learning Foundation.

front-cover-communicating-effectively-353x500Effective communication within any organisation is vital, and yet it is often assumed to be common sense. Many pitfalls lie in wait for the unwary and it is not surprising that some messages can easily be misinterpreted. Greater awareness of the issues and practising the necessary skills can transform the way people get on with one another within the workplace, both internally and externally.

What the Useful Guide includes:

  • The communication process and interpersonal skills
  • Assertive communication
  • Communicating on the telephone
  • Image and body language
  • Communicating in writing
  • Communicating within groups
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Speaking to an audience



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