Should You Spell Out Numbers In Legal Documents?

I have mentioned in the past that some of my editorial and writing work has included documents for law firms or related legal applications. Legal filings are beyond my expertise, but I’ve done a lot of work for use on law firm sites, usually targeted to other lawyers or to potential clients.

Competent writing of that sort often requires reading up on a topic and that research brings me into contact with filings and rulings, as well as many other legal documents. Legal writing can be dry; it can be boring. At its worst, it can be downright terrible: not merely overblown and tortured, but also virtually unintelligible even to a knowledgeable and interested reader.

On the other hand, good legal writing can be both interesting and entertaining (as Judge Posner and others have repeatedly shown).

One of the bad things that I only rarely have to suffer through in legal writing is the completely unnecessary spelling out of numbers. Few things in professional writing make me truly angry, but this is one of them.

I’m not talking about spelling out “six” for “6” or even the occasional “twenty-five” for “25” (the first of my examples would be recommended by virtually every accepted style; the second would be acceptable to a large minority). Oh, no: I’m talking about documents in which a year, such as 1997, or a dollar amount, such as $3,150,621, is spelled out: One thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-seven; three million, one hundred fifty-thousand, six-hundred, and twenty-one dollars (…gratuitous commas and “and” added to stress the point).

This kind of thing is just awful and there is no excuse for it. This is not recommended (or even condoned) practice in any major style. Not even the legal ones, such as Bluebook or Redbook. Bryan Garner, the chief motivator behind The Redbook, gives essentially the same advice there that he does in the more general-audience Garner’s Modern English Usage:

“The best practice is to spell out all numbers ten and below and to use numerals for 11 and above.”

Major style guides—and in-house styles—generally agree, but might differ in the details, spelling out numbers through 12, or 20, or 100. But the principle is the same. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an authority that dictates spelling out “three thousand four hundred seventy-seven.” (There are a handful of exceptions in every style, such as spelling out numbers when they start a sentence. I won’t try to categorize the exceptions, just follow whatever style is being used on your document.)

In any writing, spelling out large numbers instead of using numerals is annoying. In legal writing, it’s worse. Getting it onto the page correctly in the first place requires extra effort, and then it demands extra proofing. The possibility of error increases at every stage. Beyond that, from a reader’s point of view this approach makes a document harder to read. If only a small number of uses are involved, it might not be too much of a problem. But the more that this sort of thing is done, the more trouble it can cause.

I’m bringing all this up as prelude to a document of staggering opacity that I recently had the misfortune to review. The document defines the physical limits of a parcel of land subject to a proposed city zoning change.

It’s included here, with most of the identifying information stripped out. This is less a strictly legal document than a government one, but the idea is exactly the same: someone felt the need to spell out the large numbers used to describe a lengthy series of property boundary measurements, and the result is an abomination.

Take a look, but don’t feel pressured to study the entire thing.

Not only is this verbal description of the affected area extremely difficult (and tedious) to read but, having had to read this document and compare the described measurements to the map of same, I submit that there is an error in the text description. (I don’t think this error can be discovered without walking through the text in tandem with the map, so don’t exert any effort trying to find it.)

Let’s not even talk about the capitalization; or why the author of this horror felt that distances need to be spelled out, but not compass directions; or why the area (square footage) at the end of the list is not spelled out.

I had trouble finding any reputable source—and I want to be very clear on this: any reputable source—that requires, specifies, encourages, justifies, or even tolerates this practice. Even in this manual (my linked boundary document was produced in Massachusetts, so I’ll assume it follows Mass rules), there’s no reference to this kind of thing. I probably shouldn’t take that as gospel, though: the ‘General Laws of Massachusetts’ is a document that’s an egregious offender when it comes to spelling out numbers instead of using numerals. Compare these two sample pages to see if you can uncover any guiding principle in the good old “M.G.L.”

If any reader has information to show that some style or actual law dictates this practice, please share it.

From what my research (as always, limited) reveals, the origin of the practice of spelling out all numbers, or spelling them and then including the numerals in parentheses, is lost to history.

Some say that it is purely an archaic practice of writing out numbers: it was done by people who had limited literacy and even less numeracy. It’s my working contention that this theory makes sense only if the practice dates back both to a time and a place when literacy was very low, so that writing, including the writing of numbers, was unusual and was only done for important documents; and, it would likely have to date to a time before the widespread adoption of Arabic numerals. This would require that the tradition began no later than the 16th century.

I’m not explicitly debunking this idea. It would need to meet some conditions, though. Do I think it could meet them? Yes. The question would not be why the practice started, but why it has lingered on so long.

Others suggest that it is (or was) a long-standing anti-fraud measure: numerals alone would be relatively easy to modify in a document without great risk of detection, but altering the numerals and the spelled-out version would introduce a greater risk of the fraud being easily spotted (by causing a problem with the document’s original word spacing and sizing, for example). As proof of this, commenters often cite the ‘fact’ or ‘law’ that when there is a discrepancy between the words and the numerals on a bank check, the words win.

Part of this is indeed true. Something called the Uniform Commercial Code governs the form and validity of transactions such as bank checks, and it specifies that spelled numbers take precedence over numerals when there is a disagreement. This isn’t a Federal law, but has been adopted in very similar form by every state.

Maybe that’s why this practice exists: some people have adopted it as a general anti-fraud measure. And others, whether they’re aware of the anti-fraud idea or not, have copied that form, believing that it was a necessary or recommended style to use in important documents. Both could be true, whether or not it’s effective as an anti-fraud measure, and whether or not it makes any document seem “more official.”

Spelling out the numbers on a check is still fairly common practice. Do you do it? I do, but not because I think of it as an anti-fraud measure: it’s just the way I was taught to write checks, and I’ve never changed it.

This blog is frequently about recommendations for best practice, so let’s wrap up with one.

When it comes to advice on what to do when writing numbers in other documents—even legal documents—this isn’t a hard call. Don’t spell out large numbers. It’s extra work for you, extra work for your readers, and it makes it more likely that errors will slip into your documents. Keep it simple and use numerals whenever possible (as directed by the style guide you’re using).

(Minor edit, 2 August 2021.)

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Should You Spell Out Numbers In Legal Documents?

  1. Richard Juday says:

    I so much enjoy reading your work!  I don’t remember how I got onto your list, but I am glad I did.

    I have some comments to your most recent post, and I hope you will take them in stride as friendly.  I will elide lots of the content in order to concentrate on just the comments, but you will have no trouble with that.

    Should You Spell Out Numbers In Legal Documents?

    Posted on July 30, 2021 by thebettereditor …Legal writing can be dry; it can be boring. At it’s *oh, dear* worst, it can be downright terrible: not merely overblown and tortured,… Few things in professional writing make me truly angry, but this is one of them.*Some numbers **/must/**be spelled out — financial ones in particular where a slipped decimal can have huge consequences.*

    … One thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-seven; three million, one hundred fifty-thousand, six-hundred, *and *twenty-one dollars (…gratuitous commas added to stress the point). *I would have not used the “and”.*

    If only a small number of uses are involved, it might not be too much of *Sigh. The useless “of” has pervaded American English.  E.g. “too big of a deal”. “big” modifies “deal”, “of a deal” does not modify “big”. In this exact instance, though, I would not object stringently.* a problem. But the more that *extraneous “that”, and not in conformance with its not being used in the latter part of this sentence* this sort of thing is done, the more trouble it can cause….

    so I’ll assume it follows Mass *no real difficulty understanding that you refer to the state, not the service, but with more reflection would you indicate an abbreviation with a period?* rules

    Some say that it is purely an archaic practice of writing out numbers: it was done by people who had limited literacy and even less numeracy. It’s my working contention that this theory *as a scientist, I prefer “hypothesis” here* makes sense only if

    so that writing, including the writing of numbers, was unusual and was *only done* for important documents; *I would reverse those two words in the interest of putting the diminutive “only” immediately preceding what it is intended to reduce.  Even better, consider “done for only important documents”.  See Gregg, 1072.*

    Others suggest that it is (or was) a long-standing anti-fraud measure: numerals alone would be relatively easy to modify in a document without great risk of detection *see my earlier comment*, but altering the numerals /and/ the spelled-out version would introduce a greater risk of the fraud being easily spotted (by causing a problem with the document’s original word spacing and sizing, for example). As proof of this, commenters often cite the ‘fact’ or ‘law’ that when there is a discrepancy between the words and the numerals on a bank check, the words win. *I really like that practice; owing to the information’s being less dense in the words (that’s information in Shannon’s sense), a single character’s replacement is less damaging and very often correctable.*

    Like

    • Wow. There’s so much here that it’s no surprise WordPress automatically filtered it to spam. (I only noticed it because of an odd system message about a comment that wasn’t actually there.)

      Anyway: You invested an inordinate amount of time in this, so it’s only fair that I (not “fair that I only”) give you a little back.

      First, you found a typo. Thanks! That was the “it’s” that slipped through. Sadly, this is a reflex action of my typing fingers, the way some people (including you, it appears) sometimes insert two spaces after a period, or (not you) occasionally type “snd” instead of “and” or “teh” instead of “the.”

      It slipped through because I was under deadline (four simultaneously) and I didn’t check off for myself one of the (many) steps I would apply to client work. This a case in point of why I repeatedly note on this blog that writers should not edit their own work!

      Regarding the other grammar and writing points, it should be clear that on this blog I attempt (most of the time) to use a style that is more conversational than formal. I don’t always succeed. While there are situations where I would agree with some of the issues you pointed out…this isn’t one of them. Most of the specific picks you nit fall into this category. More than one aren’t even pedantry, they’re simply wrong in context.

      One item worth a response, though, is the contention that I’ve misplaced the word “only” in a sentence. It’s a fair enough criticism, and there are many specific cases when meaning changes significantly based on where that modifier lands. In this case, it’s clear in context what is meant. Reordering does not improve the sentence. The original “[this] was unusual and was only done for important documents” is functionally equivalent to the revised “[this] was unusual and was done only for important documents.” These variations have slightly different shades of meaning, relative to exclusivity, but it’s a difference without a distinction. It doesn’t hold the potential for confusion that, for example “he killed only those who offended him” has when compared to “he killed those who only offended him.”

      Returning to my awkward construction, your suggested “[this] was done for only important documents” becomes unidiomatic and muddies the waters even more (what is an “only important document?”), while another alternative, “[this] was done for important documents only,” changes the meaning.

      Still, point taken: the sentence, and the entire paragraph, could be better.

      In thinking hard about this point (“only placement”), it seems to me that the issue is similar to both the split infinitive problem and the superstition that a preposition can never end a sentence. In many cases, those things are absolutely true for clear writing. In some cases, they aren’t necessarily problems, but produce awkward writing. In other cases, they don’t matter at all. The “only” problem is real, but it’s not a problem in every situation so the solution should not be reflexively applied.

      Quibbles over verbiage aside, I’m concerned that you may have missed the actual point of the post.

      The core idea is that the archaic practice of spelling out large numbers in pseudo-legal documents should be abandoned. My argument that the costs of the practice (expanded possibility of error introduction, wasted effort in writing and editing, wasted effort and potential confusion in reading) outweigh the benefits (error correction, easier fraud detection).

      Your contention that “a slipped decimal can have huge consequences” does not annul this. It is instead an argument for proper proofing of documents, especially any numerals in them. If the accuracy of the terms of an agreement comes down to a slipped decimal, someone has not done their job. With numerals, only one set of figures needs to be verified. Adding words increases the possibility (and probability) of error. The written form, in my opinion and experience, is also less likely to be properly verified and more likely to include errors or to become open for interpretation—an especially worrisome problem, since spelled numbers rule over numerals in most jurisdictions.

      But to stay focused: the limited, legally endorsed, use of this practice in writing checks and other financial instruments has no business in other types of documents. Let people continue to spell things out on checks if they like. But in other documents, not only is there no legal reason to follow this practice, it also creates more problems than it purports to solve.

      Thanks for your input!

      Like

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