How numbers are written out is one of the quickest ways to determine at a glance whether copy is intended for print/online or for broadcast. Numbers in broadcast scripts, in most cases, look nothing like those you’re used to reading on the page/screen, for the simple reason that the broadcast writer tries to relieve the news announcer of as much mental effort as possible, so she can concentrate on diction and performance. In short, you want to remove all the speed bumps that inhibit the anchor’s comprehension.
Also, spelling out numbers helps to get a more accurate time calculation from computerized word- or character-counting systems.
There are a few differences of opinion among broadcasters, but here’s my handy guide to spelling out numbers. They apply only to American-style broadcast writing.
In a nutshell, you are trying to transcribe the way the figure would be spoken aloud–within these parameters.
- Spell out ‘one’ through ‘twenty.’
- Use digits from ’21′ through ’999,’ except…
- Spell out round numbers from ‘twenty’ through ‘ninety.’
- Use the words ‘thousand,’ ‘million,’ ‘billion,’ etc. where they would be spoken: “four-million;” “21-thousand-450.”
- For a conversational style–between 1,100 and 10,000–use the word ‘hundred’ where it would be spoken, especially for round numbers: “45-hundred;” “62-hundred-and-50.”
- Don’t use a dollar sign ($), cent sign (¢), or percent sign (%). Spell them out as they would be spoken: “six-million dollars;” “87 cents;” “sixty-percent.”
- Don’t use a decimal point (.). Spell it out as it would be spoken: “62-point-five million.”
- None of the above applies to years. Write them with Arabic numerals, as usual.
- For ordinals (“first,” “53rd”) all the same rules apply, except of course you use the ordinal abbreviations (“st,” “nd,” “rd,” “th”) where they mix with Arabic numerals.
I’ll discuss the question of precision (i.e. how accurately to represent a lengthy number) in a future post.