Expressing numbers in English

This article has been edited from Typical Errors in English, with several revisions, updates and additional material.

It's not something we think about regularly, but students often have problems when it comes to expressing numbers in the English language. The problem is using them not only in counting, but also saying and even writing them in different contexts.

When I first started putting this feature together for the website, I was thinking that it was mainly going to be a cut-and-paste job from TEE, only to discover there's a lot more that needed to be explained.

But do note that what I've presented here as advice isn't always what other people and organisations may do as they might do things a little different (newspaper style guides being an obvious example). But where those differences occur I have noted them. Otherwise, follow these examples and you should be okay.

So I've split all this into three parts, and each of these parts are split into (approximately!) three sections:

PART ONE: Saying normal numbers, big numbers, and numbers less than one (fractions)

PART TWO: Weights and measures, money and telephone numbers

PART THREE: Room, bus, document and road numbers, ordinal numbers, and British or American billions?

And at the end of most of these sections I'll try and give you a few little questions to check your understanding.

Right! So let's begin!

Saying normal numbers

Right, let's start with a nice, simple, exercise. Can you count from 1 to 10 out loud - in English, of course?

Okay, now if I was (or were, depending on what you prefer) to ask you if you could count all the way to 100 out loud, could you do it?

Try writing in number form five, twelve, thirty-seven, one hundred and thirty-four, four hundred and sixty-five and seven hundred and ninety-eight.

You should, of course, have these answers:

5 five 12 twelve 37 thirty-seven

134 one hundred and thirty four (or a hundred and thirty-four)

465 four hundred and sixty-five

798 seven hundred and ninety-eight

What about to 1000 or beyond that? If you were asked to, could you count to higher numbers?

If your answer is yes, then that's great. I would perhaps expect it. But what happens when we take these numbers in isolation, and I tell you to write them down? Many of you probably realise that, like letters, numbers being given at random can be more difficult to think about.

EXERCISE 1

I am going to dictate ten numbers to you. I will repeat them twice. Can you write them down?

Click on the audio link here for the numbers. The answers are at the bottom of this page.

Big numbers

If you had some problems with the bigger numbers in the audio exercise, don't worry. You're not the only students.

Expressing big numbers in writing is more of a European problem (or it is more of an English language problem, depending on your perspective.)

Look at these numbers below and how they are expressed when written... in British and American English:

2281 two thousand, two hundred and eighty-one (British English)

two thousand, two hundred eighty-one (American English)

6144 six thousand, one hundred and forty-four (British English)

six thousand, one hundred forty-four (American English)

23,567 twenty-three thousand, five hundred and sixty-seven (British English)

twenty-three thousand, five hundred sixty-seven (American English)

641,256 six hundred and forty-one thousand, two hundred and fifty-six (British English)

six hundred forty-one thousand, two hundred fifty-six (American English)

31,934,623 thirty-one million, nine hundred and thirty-four thousand, six hundred and twenty-three (British English)

thirty-one million, nine hundred thirty-four thousand, six hundred twenty-three (American English)

786,389,004 seven hundred and eighty-six million, three hundred and eighty-nine thousand and four (British English)

seven hundred eighty-six million, three hundred eighty-nine thousand and four (American English)

Note that we usually hyphenate (adding ‘-‘) two worded numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine: Forty-seven, one hundred and thirty-three, fifty-five thousand, six hundred and seventy-seven.

You may have noted that with big numbers, written English uses the comma symbol (,) and not the decimal point symbol (.) to help express the number of digits when written, so a million would be written as 1,000,000 (NOT 1.000.000).

In all languages, of course, we can simply remove the commas and dots and just leave spaces: 1 000 000.

EXERCISE 2

A nice easy exercise. Really, you couldn't have asked for an easier exercise.

Write down the following numbers using actual numbers, and then 'punctuate' them if necessary.

1. seven thousand and seventy-two

2. thirty-six thousand two hundred and two

3. six hundred and fifty-three thousand nine hundred and forty-five

4. two million one hundred and forty-seven thousand seven hundred and forty-four

5. five hundred and seventy-six million six hundred and eighty-one thousand one hundred and eighty-one

The answers are at the bottom of this page.

Numbers less than one (fractions)

First, how would you say these numbers (fractions)?

¼ ½ ¾ ⅓ ⅔ ⅕ ⅙ ⅚ ⅛ ⅝

Although with ordinal numbers* we count by saying first, second, third, fourth, etc., but with fractions we say the following: ¼ = a quarter, ½ = a half, ¾ = three quarters, ⅓ = a third/one third, ⅔ = two thirds, ⅕ = a fifth/one fifth, ⅙= a sixth/one sixth, ⅚ = five sixths, ⅛ = an eighth/one eighth, ⅝ = five eighths, and so on, just as in ordinal numbers (fifth, sixth, seventh, etc). The half (½) and the quarters (¼, ¾) are the exceptions.

*See later in this feature for ordinal numbers.

Do note that most newspapers prefer you to write fractions as half, quarter, three quarters, third, fifth, eighth and not as ½, ¼, ¾, ⅓, ⅕ and ⅛. I would definitely carry this advice in any written work, including writing ⅝ as five eighths: Almost a quarter of all employees will be made redundant. A fifth of the population didn't vote in the last election.

However, with formal presentations such as with Powerpoint, numbers can be more effective visually than words and more likely to get your point across, so feel free to display on screen numbers - both small numbers below 20 and fractions - as digits:

1 in 3 PEOPLE NOW SPEAK ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE.

¼

of the workforce could be made redundant as a result of these proposals.

Now how would you say these numbers?

0.4 2.45 23.456

The answers are zero-point-four (British English also likes oh-point-four); two-point four-five and twenty-three point four-five-six.

The decimal point (.) is used to express fractions in decimals, so for example:

six and a half would be written as 6.5 (six point five);

three hundred and sixty point three seven five would be written as 360.375;

seventeen million, four hundred and eighty-seven thousand, six hundred and forty-eight point seven five nine two becomes 17,487,648.7592.

Do note that with numbers we say the numbers individually in the fraction part of the number, after the decimal point. For example, with 2.75 we say two point seven five, NOT two point seventy-five.

If we were to write the number 3.000, this is not three thousand but three-point-zero-zero-zero, which might suggest that this is only the number three as no real fraction follows it (and we do not write such numbers with only zeros in the fraction).

So if we are expressing the number in thousands, it should be written as 3,000 (three thousand) with the comma.

Or without, of course: 3 000.

EXERCISE 3

Read the sentences and write the result.

Examples: One sixth of 3: 0.5; half of 0.5 written as a fraction: ¼; a half written as a decimal: 0.5

1. half of 6.8

2. one quarter plus one quarter written as a fraction

3. one eighth of 2 as a fraction

4. half of six hundred point five

5. zero point one two five as a fraction

6. Take 3 as a whole number and take away 75%, and write the answer as a decimal

The answers are at the bottom of this page.

COMING UP: We'll be looking at the ways to express weights and measures, money, room, bus, document and road numbers, ordinal numbers and the big question: British or American billions?

So click here!

ANSWERS TO EXERCISE 1

1. 72

2. 146

3. 881

4. 1,293

5. 6,325

6. 26,905

7. 58,637

8. 305,006

9. 842,518

10. 1,000,001

(Of course, you could leave out the commas and just have blank spaces where these should be.)

ANSWERS TO EXERCISE 2 (These are the British English answers: simply drop 'and' for American English.)

1. 7,072 seven thousand and seventy-two

2. 36,202 thirty-six thousand two hundred and two

3. 653,945 six hundred and fifty-three thousand nine hundred and forty-five

4. 2,147,744 two million, one hundred and forty-seven thousand, seven hundred and forty-four

5. 576,681,181 five hundred and seventy-six million, six hundred and eighty-one thousand, one hundred and eighty-one

ANSWERS TO EXERCISE 3

1. 3.4 half of 6.8

2. ½ one quarter plus one quarter written as a fraction (not a decimal)

3. ¼ one eighth of 2

4. 300.25 half of six hundred point five

5. ⅛ zero point one two five as a fraction (not a decimal)

6. 0.75 take 3 as a whole number and take away 75%, and write the answer as a decimal

Good! If this has been nice and easy, then there should be no problems with the next two sections. Please click the link below.

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