A math wizard from Bangalore, India, by the name of Shakantula Devi made it to the Guinness Book of Records in 1980 when she mentally multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. This was the arithmetic operation she performed: 7,686,369,774,870 x 2, 465,099,745,779 = 18,947,668,177,995,426,773,730. Since then, Ms. Devi had been routinely beating sophisticated computers right in their own turf. In one such contest, it took her only 50 seconds to get the 23rd root of a 21-digit number, while the computer took more than a minute to perform the same job.

My point in writing about Ms. Deviâs astounding arithmetic powers isnât really to goad lesser mortals like ourselves to try to emulate her feat, nor to shame the arithmetic-challenged among us to improve their basic computing skills, but simply to encourage people to accord more respect to numbers in their English prose. Take note, for instance, that I didnât write the year â1980â in the first paragraph as âThe Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eightyâ (as some lawyers are still wont to do even now); that I didnât write â13-digitâ as âthirteen-digitâ; that I did not write â28 secondsâ as âtwenty-eight secondsâ; and that I didnât write â23rdâ as âtwenty-third.â The grammar of numbers and time is not a scienceâtoo many national and cultural variations militate against a universal numbers-writing styleâbut we certainly can minimize unsightly crimes of prose innumeracy by agreeing on a basic numbers stylebook.

Let us begin with two generally accepted rules: (1) numbers from 1 to 10 should be written as words when used in a sentence: âThe customer ordered

*eight* red shirts and

*five* blue ones, but returned

*thre*e brownsâ; and (2) numbers from 11 upwards in a sentence should be written in numerals: âThe professor discovered to her dismay that

*12* of her pupils were absent, and that

*546* of the entire student population did not make it to their classes either.â And if perchance the sentence has numbers ranging from 1 to any number higher than 10, the two rules above still hold even if it means mixing figures and spelled-out numbers: âWe counted a total of

*800* words in her essay and found

*ten* misspelled words and

*17* wrong word choices.â

There are just two notable exceptions to these rules. First, any number that starts a sentence should be written in words: â

*Thirteen* is considered an unlucky number by some people.â â

*Four hundred eighty-two* years ago, a Portuguese explorer stumbled on a group of islands on the Pacific and named it the Archipelago of St. Lazarus.â Second, when numbers are used to list a series of items within a sentence, all such numbers should be written as figures (or digits) even for numbers below 11: âThese are the 14 reasons why I wonât live in your city: (1) the traffic is horrible, (2) the overcrowding is simply too much, (3) the cost of living is too high, andâŠ (14) it gets so cold there in winter.â

Many people, of course, after writing out a number in words, indiscriminately repeat them in figures enclosed in parenthesis, as in: âI would like to discuss with you today

*three (3)* aspects of the problem being encountered by

*four (4)* of our regional offices.â Is this correct usage?

Definitely not; this kind of absurd overemphasis literally insults the reader. This should be strictly confined to commercial or legal writing, as in writing checks or in preparing affidavits to make sure that nobody can easily monkey around with the numbers: âPay to Cash:

*Five Thousand Two Hundred Sixty Pesos Only (PhP5,260.00)*â ââŠfor an in consideration of the delivery of

*Eight Hundred Sixty-Seven (867) pieces of widgets*.â

Marking time gives us more latitude in using numbers. We can write, say, â9:00 A.M. (or a.m.)â or ânine oâclock in the morningâ depending on the accuracy we want to convey. But most everybody on the planet is agreed that exact dates should be written in numbers, as in âAugust 24, 1946.â

We have to take up just three more important rules about writing numbers before we close: (1) We should use figures and not spell out numbers immediately before a unit of measure: âa 10-minute wait,â âa 3-3/4 cm. length of tape,â â16 Megahertz on the FM bandâ; (2) We should use figures and not spell out numbers that represent statistical or mathematical functions or formulas: âdivided by 6,â multiplied by 9,â âa ratio of 50:1,â â8% biggerâ or â8 percent biggerâ; and (3) We should use figures and not spell out numbers that represent time, ages, money, sizes, scores, and points on a scale: âat 12 midnight,â â4 years old,â â$9,â â5 cm. x 12 cm.,â â73:69,â and âIntensity 5 on the Richter Scale.â

We use numbers all the time in our lives, so it pays to always do our numbers right.

*This essay first appeared in the weekly column âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo circa 2005 in *The Manila Times

*and later appeared as Chapter 129 of the authorâs book *Give Your English the Winning Edge

*, Â© 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.*