Correct Composition/Chapter 4



ARABIC FIGURES are not always to be repeated in type as written in the manuscript copy. In the descriptive text of a standard book numbers but occasionally presented are more pleasing in words. Figures should be avoided as much as possible for all numbers but those of dates. Yet there are limits to the rule, for many writings compel a free use of arabic figures.


When and where to substitute figures for words cannot be determined by an inflexible rule. If the compositor finds this statement in his copy, the height of the statue is 8 ft. 11 in., he may put it in type in many ways. If it is to appear in an auctioneer's catalogue, or in an advertisement where compactness is desired, lie may repeat it exactly as written, using figures and abbreviations for feet and inches. If it is for a more carefully printed trader's pamphlet or circular, he may use figures, but he should spell out the words feet and inches; if it is for the descriptive text of a good book, the words eight feet and eleven inches should be preferred. This substitution of words for figures is a hazard, but the compositor may assume, when space is limited and brevity is sought, that figures and abbreviations will be preferred.


When great precision of statement is desired, as is customary in legal documents and in many other kinds of formal writing, figures and abbreviations should never be used where there is abundance of space.[1] Words should be preferred for the statements of whole numbers in simple sentences:

  • The basket held twenty apples.
  • The engine has one hundred horse-power.
  • The steamer's capacity is six thousand tons.

In ordinary newspaper and job work numbers of infrequent recurrence should be in words. Even when the numbers are large but not too frequent, words are to be preferred if space will permit.

  • The regiment consisted of ten hundred and forty-eight men.
  • The returns showed twenty-nine killed, forty-four wounded, and twenty-six missing.

In ordinary description the expression of numbers by hundreds is preferred to that by thousands: twenty-eight hundred and sixty is a more approved phrase than two thousand eight hundred and sixty. In legal documents a contrary method prevails : dates always appear by thousands, and spelled-out words are obligatory for measurements, values, and their fractions in every form.


When space is limited, and numbers appear in every sentence and are complex, calling for many digits, spelled-out words are a hindrance and of no benefit to the reader. The information intended will be more quickly discerned by figures, which must be regarded as proper when they really help the reader. Yet it is not becoming to put figures in one chapter or paragraph and not in another. Uniformity of style should be maintained throughout. It is better to give slight offence by an apparently pedantic precision in one paragraph than to give greater offence by varying the style in different paragraphs to the confusion of the reader.


Words should always be preferred for numbers as well as for dates in legal documents, as in

This indenture, made the twenty-seventh day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven.

Words should also be used in all legal papers for the statement of moneys paid, as well as for the measurements of land and the expression of values, for figures are specially liable to error, alteration, and misconstruction. For this reason statements of numbers plainly intended to have special distinction should be in words, even when they appear as arabic figures in ordinary writings. Even in compact writing the use of spelled-out words instead of figures is sometimes obligatory.


When the sentence begins with a numerical statement, words must be used for the numbers, even if figures are used in other parts of that sentence.

Eighteen thousand men enlisted in New York State during the year: 8000 are credited to Manhattan, 4000 to Brooklyn, 2000 to Troy, 1000 to Albany, and 3000 elsewhere.

A statement like this is permissible in a newspaper or pamphlet, but in a history or in any book intended to be formally precise, it is a much better practice to put all the numbers in words.

In a catalogue of books in which the size of the book has to be specified, the terms 4to, 8vo, 12mo, etc., may be used within the sentence, but the words Quarto, Octavo, Twelvemo, Eighteenmo, Thirty-twomo, etc., are better when they begin sentences.


When any paragraph consists largely of numbers that specify quantities, weights, or measurements, immediately followed by rates or values, then the quantities, weights, or measurements should be in words and the rates in figures. This remark applies mainly to the circulars of traders. In market reports, catalogues, inventories, and works of like character in which great compactness is desired, figures may be used throughout for specifications of all numbers. When vulgar fractions have to be used with whole numbers, the selection of arabic figures seems unavoidable.

  • Seventy yards of calico, at 5½ cents per yard.
  • Forty-five bushels of oats, at 37½ cents per bushel.
  • Seventeen acres of land, at $12¾ per acre.

When numerical statements like these are repeated frequently, this restricted use of figures for rates or values makes a proper distinction between quantities and rates, and helps the reader to a better understanding of the subject-matter.

Arabic figures should be selected to express degrees of heat (as in Temperature 71°) or specifications of gravity (as in Lead is 11.352), but words are better for degrees of inclination (as in At an angle of forty-five degrees).

Records of votes (as in 20 yeas to 41 nays), or of time in a race (as in One mile in 2 minutes 23 seconds), are made clearer by figures.

Numerals occasionally employed as qualifiers are neater in words (as in two-foot rule or ten-story building); but when a noun is frequently repeated on the same page, with different qualifiers, figures make the subject-matter more intelligible (as in 6point, 24-point, and 60-poiiit type). It is admitted, however, that the combination of figures and words in a compound is not sightly.


In ordinary writings all dates should be in arabic figures, but when they appear in legal documents words should be used. When the numerical day of the month precedes the month, it should appear as 10th April or 22d April. When it follows the month, the th or d is not required; it should be April 10 or April 22. When it is spelled out in a document, it should be in full, as the tenth day of April or the twenty-second day of April. Dates should be stated with system in every book. It is a fault to have April 17, 1762, on one page, and 23d August, 1764, on another. The use of 2nd or 3rd, common in England, is not to be commended; 2d or 3d is a more acceptable abbreviation.


In formal writing a statement of time should be made in words. Phrases like two o'clock, half -past three, or ten minutes to four are more pleasingly expressed by words than by 2 o'clock, 3.30, or 3.50.

Hours are usually separated from minutes by a period, as in 11.30. Sometimes the period is inverted, as in 11*30, and sometimes a colon is unwisely used, as in 11:30. The forms o'clk and o'cl'k are tolerated in narrow column work only.

In rapid writing figures are often used for time when followed by the abbreviations a.m. or p.m. When a.m. and p.m. are not in the copy, which reads, at seven o'clock in the morning, or at twelve o'clock noon, words should be used instead of figures.


In ordinary description, but not in a legal document, the expression of money in complex or broken amounts, as $21.76 or 23 7s. 3d., should be in figures. Even amounts of money, like five dollars or three shillings, may be in words, but not if figures are used in the same paragraph for other amounts. In ordinary composition, whole numbers with vulgar fractions often compel the use of figures.

  • Analysis showed 13½ grains of soda to the pint.
  • John has $76.21, and James has $50.67.

An isolated vulgar fraction should be in words: 1/8 or 1/32 is insignificant, and is more readably presented as one eighth or one thirty-second.

The hyphen is not needed to join the words one eighth, or those of any similar fraction, when they are used alone, but it is needed when the fraction is used as a qualifier, as in one-eighth share.

Compounded fractions like eight thirty-seconds take the hyphen for the compounded numeral, because the hyphen is needed to show the closer relation of the two numbers to each other, as more clearly appears in forty-seven ninety-sixths.

The figures upon the en body provided by type-founders are insignificant in a line of capital letters. Newspapers prefer figures on the two-third-em body for their tabular work.

1/81/43/85/83/47/8 ⅛ ¼ ⅜ ½ ⅝ ¾ ⅞

Fractions on the en body are quite indistinct in tabular work, for which fractions on the em body should be preferred. Piece-fractions on two bodies, each one half of the en body of the text type, are often required for vulgar fractions, but they are almost unreadable when cast for the smaller sizes. As these piece-fractions differ in size and cut from the solid fractions of the font, the two forms should not be used in the same table.

Decimal fractions are most intelligibly stated in figures, with the decimal point placed on the line of the figure, as it is in .638. The inversion of the decimal point, as in ˙638, is not an improvement. The decimal point must always precede the decimal figures. If division has to be made between dollars and cents, the point should be before the cents. The ciphers .00 should not be added in paragraph matter to any statement of even dollars: $100 is better than $100.00, which may be confusing. Yet the addition of the ciphers is proper in every table that contains columns separating dollars and cents.

When figures of very large amounts, as 23,762 or 5,368,872, are of frequent recurrence, the thousands should be separated by a comma; but it is not necessary to use the comma for four figures only, as 5962, nor should the comma be inserted between figures that express dates, as 1861.

Figures in a descriptive text are not pleasing, but they are necessary when the amounts are large and of frequent recurrence. To put the figures in the preceding paragraph in words would require more space, and would not be regarded as an improvement by the reader. In the texts of formal documents, however, words are preferred to figures, not only for their greater exactness, but for their neater appearance. As figures are ascending letters, occupying two thirds of the height of the body, the bunching of many of them in a paragraph spots the page and produces the effect of the overbold display of many capital letters. Yet it often happens that neatness must be subordinated to clearness. Figures are more quickly read, are more compact, and are decidedly indispensable for tabular work that is intended to present contrasts or comparisons of amounts or values.

Statistical matter not put in tables often compels the use of figures in a descriptive text, as:

The warehouse held 950 tons of wheat: 500 prime, 240 ordinary, 210 inferior.
The cannon captured were 110 in number: 40 ten-pounders, 50 forty-pounders, 15 sixty-pounders, 5 hundred-pounders.

In all encyclopedias, gazetteers, dictionaries, guide-books, and compact works of similar character, figures are preferred for numerical statements. A similar rule prevails, with occasional exceptions, in some forms of official documents, and exception is rarely made for a short number like 1 or 10.


The numerical names of city streets are presented best in words when the words are not repeated too frequently in the same sentence or paragraph. First Street is better than 1st Street. One-hundred-and-sixty -first Street is a somewhat awkward term, but it should be governed by this rule and be uniform with other numerical words.

When the number of the house is placed before the street name, as 65 First Street or 27 One-hundred-and-sixty-first Street, figures are needed to emphasize the difference between the number of the house and that of the street.[2]

When streets and avenues are frequently mentioned in the same sentence or paragraph, and this treatment is not contrary to that prevailing in other parts of the work, the avenue may take the numerical word and the street the arabic figure or figures, as Fifth Avenue and 125th Street. In directories and other compacted works streets and avenues are necessarily described by figures only. But when a distinction has to be made, the avenue should have the word, the street the figure.


Regiments and corps of the army are easily differentiated by similar treatment. When two or more regiments only are specified in a sentence, as the Fortieth and the One-hundred-and-seventh, words are properly selected; but when in this sentence or paragraph other names occur, as the First Corps, Seventh Corps, etc., then the corps should be specified by numerical words and the regiments by arabic figures. In a newspaper report of a battle or a review the specification of different regiments by words would make that report needlessly prolix, and sometimes would confuse the reader.


Arabic figures are now made to line with the lowercase letters, and are of improved symmetrical form, but they continue to be cast upon the en body for convenience in table-work. They are consequently too weak to be used with capital letters that may be nearly twice as wide. For this reason the dates of some book titles, and the numbers of chapters and of other headings of a book in which numbers have to appear in the same line with capitals, are usually put in roman numerals made of capital letters. When a font has full figures of the width of the average capital letter, these broader figures may properly be used with the capitals, but figures on the en body should be used with capital letters only when these capitals are of condensed shape.

When arabic figures are required in a display line of old-style capitals, the figures selected should be of a larger body about one half larger than the regular capitals, and should be justified to line; but this is possible only in a book title or in very open display.


The insignificance in a line of capital letters of the arabic figures provided for book types compels the use of roman numerals for an orderly rendering of dates in title-pages and chapter headings. The numerals in most use are made from combinations of the seven capitals, I, V, X, L, C, D, M:

1 I| 12=XII 30=XXX 500=D 2 II 13 XIII 40 XL 600 DC 3 III 14 XIV 50 L 700 DCC 4 IV 15 XV 60 LX 800 DCCC 5 V 16 XVI 70 LXX 900 CM 6 VI 17 XVII 80 LXXX 1000 M 7 VII 18 XVIII 90 XC 2000 MM 8 VIII 19 XIX 100 C 3000 MMM 9 IX 20 XX 200 CC 4000 MV 10 X 21 XXI 300 CCC 5000 V or ∞ 11 XI 22 XXII 400 CD 6000 VM

When letters that represent numbers of low value follow a letter of high value, the added letters give addition to this high value: XIII stands for 13. When a letter of low value precedes a letter of high value, this preceding letter calls for its subtraction from the following letter of higher value: MCM=1900. For some amounts exceeding 2000 the characters ∞, ╳, X, V, and the C inverted as Ↄ, have to be rudely made by the printer, for these characters are not provided in fonts of book type.[3] Roman numerals had to be used by the first printers because they had no arable figures. These figures were first used in 1471 by Ther Hoernen, but they did not obtain a general acceptance for many years after. They were irregular in form and bad mates for the roman capital letters. These unsymmetrical characters were bettered but slowly, still remaining

Fifteenth century.

Old style.

Didot style.


objectionably uncouth at the close of the eighteenth century. The figures 1, 2, and 0 were made small and low, and all other figures were put above or below the line. For table-work all the figures were cast upon the en body. This left them insignificant when they were used in a line of capitals. What mismating of characters can be worse than this?


It was the weakness and the uneven alignment of the arabic figures made for old-style fonts that compelled printers to use bolder-faced roman numerals for all title-pages, chapter headings, dedications, inscriptions, and every other part of a book that was required to be composed largely in capital letters.[4]


Roman numerals are often used to specify parts and chapters. The numeral used in a chapter heading generally has the word chapter before it, as


but the continued repetition of the word chapter seems as unnecessary in this position as the word page before paging figures. Some printers suppress the word chapter (always understood) to give the required prominence to the numeral. Arabic figures following the word chapter should be as broad and as prominent as the letters of the word.

Sections, pages, paragraphs, and verses are usually marked with arabic figures, but numerals of roman small capitals are preferred for cantos or stanzas of poetry. Numerals in roman lower-case are the rule for the paging of prefaces and some times of introductions. Book titles, dedications, and formal printed pieces which require an occasional use of numbers usually present these numbers in the form of roman numerals, but this is not obligatory. The date line of the title-page of the ordinary book is frequently in arabic figures.

The numbers of the chapter headings in a table of contents are put in roman numerals, usually in capitals, but sometimes in small capitals.


The numerical part of the names of magnates is usually put in capital letters, and the name proper is kept in lower-case, as Gregory IX, Henry VIII, etc.; but the large size and the frequent recurrence of these capitals seriously disfigure a page that has many names of like character. To avoid this blemish, small capitals may be preferred when they are a trifle higher than the round letters of the lower-case and are sufficiently large and distinct. They should not be used when they are not higher and are condensed or compacted.

Centuries and dynasties are often specified by numerals in capital letters, as in XIXth century, XXIId dynasty; but the undue prominence of the roman numerals in a lower-case text is a needless blemish. Small capitals when sufficiently large may be substituted with advantage.

Many writers make use of spelled-out words in place of roman numerals. The phrase nineteenth century is now more common than XIXth century. The phrases sixteenth Louis, Gregory the fourth, and twenty-second dynasty may displease some readers by their novelty, but it is probable that they will supplant the older form. It is customary in many printing-houses to put a period after the numerical part of the name. The need of the period in this position has never been satisfactorily explained, for XIX is no more of an abbreviation than 19, but it is unsafe for the compositor to suppress it unless so requested. The period is not used with the numerals employed to page a preface, nor for Part II or Canto IV, nor for [chapter] xx, [page] 375, as in a foot-note. A few old printers did, however, rate figures as abbreviations.[5]

Reference figures need not be separated from the text by the marks of parenthesis, as in (1) or 1). The marks so used may be more prominent than old-style figures, and can serve no useful purpose. When the type selected for text and notes is small, a figure of slightly bolder face will be more helpful to the reader. [6]


Roman numerals of the capital, small-capital, or lower-case series are sometimes used to specify volumes, parts, or chapters in indexes and foot-notes. The word volume or chapter is rarely spelled out in an index or a note, or even abbreviated to vol. or ch., for it is supposed that the size, shape, and position of the numeral will distinguish it from other abbreviations, as it does in xi, 63, which is intended to express chapter xi, page 63. (See Abbreviations.) The numerals used for the paging of prefaces and introductions should be of the roman lower-case series. The lower-case and the small-capital letters I, v, x, closely resemble each other, and it is safer to make use of the lower-case letters only for the foot-notes where this treatment is possible. This is one of many reasons why small capitals should be made higher and wider than the round letters of the lower-case and be a proper intermediate between that series and the series of capitals.


When figures are used at the beginning of paragraphs, or to number verses or other subdivisions, the period is not needed after the figure. See the paragraphing of the Bible and the versification of all hymn-books.

  1. The principal exception to this rule is to be found in the composition of tables in which the compactness of figures aids the reader in making a comparison of amounts.
  2. In England the comma always is put after the number of the house. This is correct, but it is not American usage.
  3. Notation by numerals may be confusing, for the use of the same letter as an adding or subtracting factor allows opportunity for puzzling combinations. When the compositor is required to put a date in roman numerals, he should prefer the combinations that require few letters: MCM is better than MDCCCC.
  4. Old-style arabic figures that are clear enough when embedded in a lower-case text are not fairly clear when set solid in the columns of a table, for the figures in different lines are sometimes too close and need the separation of a lead to give them proper distinctiveness. Sometimes, however, irregularity in figures is a merit. It is for unevenness that writers on astronomy prefer for signs the crooked Greek letters, Old-style figures in all tables set in a broad measure, especially when the columns of figures are separated by a broad blank from the words that show their mean ing, are too compact; they in terfere, and confuse the reader, Figures of greater height than the round lower-case letters need leads between lines to produce the clearness desired.
  5. have seen old books with the period before and after every date, and even after the arabic figures selected for the paging of leaves. The period seems a useless nicety in this position.
  6. In a narrow measure the en figure; in a broad measure the em quadrat may be used. In a catalogue of books hanging in dention should be preferred, so that the figure that denotes the number of each book shall pro ject into the margin and readily quadrat may come after the be seen by the reader.