In everyday usage, there isn’t much difference between numbers and numerals. The terms are used interchangeably. But in formal writing, particularly academic and technical writing, there’s an important distinction.
Numbers are a concept. They’re how we quantify things. The word “number” is also a noun that can be used in a sentence. Numerals are the words and symbols used to represent numbers in writing. Let’s dive into this further.
Numbers as a concept
Picture four of your favorite types of cookies (hard to choose, isn’t it?!). You know what the number four looks like in your mind. It’s more than two, and you know it’s less than, say, seven (now we’re talking a proper snack!).
Or picture a board game die (the singular of “dice”). You know, without actually counting the dots, whether you just rolled a six. You have a clear idea in your head of what six looks like.
“Number” as a noun
We often hear phrases such as “a small number of people were there,” or “I haven’t looked at a number of the books you recommended.” Here, “number” is acting as a collective noun (sometimes called a noun of multitude).
Numerals are the way we express numbers in writing. They’re commonly made up of digits, using Hindu-Arabic numerals in Western writing: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
Roman numerals use letters to represent digits: I, II, III, XXV, CL. Going back to our board game, the six dots on the die are a type of numeral because they represent or illustrate the number six.
And you can also use words to express numerals: one, two, three, four, etc. In formal writing, there are rules for formatting and hyphenating numerals as well.
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Top Tips for Using Numerals in Your Writing
In formal writing, it’s usually best to spell out numbers 1–9 and use digits for higher numbers. Some style guides also require spelling out the number 10. If you’re not using a style guide, the important thing is to be consistent:
The farm had three cows and 13 chickens.
When starting a sentence, it’s better to use words, not digits:
Twelve years ago, I moved to a new house.
12 years ago, I moved to a new house.
We can also deal with this issue by changing the order of the words in the sentence. This way, the numeral doesn’t come at the start of the sentence.
I moved to a new house 12 years ago.
Mixing words with digits can help with clarity and readability for very large numbers:
The moon is 93 million miles from earth.
The moon is 93,000,000 miles from earth.
To sum up, numbers are a concept or an idea. They’re the quantity of something. Numerals are what we use to express numbers in writing, and they can take the form of digits, words, or symbols.
What are the main types of numerals?
Hindu-Arabic, Eastern Arabic, Chinese, and Roman are some of the common types of numerals.