Can we begin a sentence with a 'number'?

3 more votes from other users are needed to close this question.

This is the message I got hovering the mouse over close voting tab.

I wonder can we begin any sentence with a numeric value? Is it good practice?

• Here is from one of my handbooks, "The treatment of numbers in written materials is often inconsistent or otherwise faulty. A basic problem is when to spell out a number and when to use figures for it." And, when I dive into the details, there are lots of exceptions to the rules. I guess in this case it's quite all right, because everyone knows it's from a program, and the whole popup is just one single sentence (I'm not sure). Actually, to me in this case, "3 more votes" parses easier than "Three more votes". Dec 6, 2013 at 9:22
• @DamkerngT. This tickles my brain with another question! When to use figure and when to spell them out! Dec 6, 2013 at 9:25
• That's a huge question. In that handbook, it starts with "3-1 When the numbers occur infrequently, spell out numbers from 1 to 100 and round numbers beyond 100, except for certain exceptions noted below", and then "3-2 Spell out numbers that begin a sentence, except for years", and then "3-3 Use figures for numbers accompanied by abbreviations", and the list goes on, with many exceptions. Dec 6, 2013 at 9:28
• @DamkerngT. Ah, it's here! ell.stackexchange.com/questions/343/… Dec 6, 2013 at 9:31
• In programming, this is easier. To convert `3` to `three` one needs to write a specific function. Jun 24, 2021 at 12:33

One website lists this APA guidance:

Use words for numbers beginning a sentence, title, or heading (Forty-eight percent responded; Ten subjects improved, and 4 subjects did not.).

However, I can understand why you'd see the sentence you observed when you hovered over the mouse button. The software looks at the number of close votes, performs a quick subtraction problem, and then inserts the result into the beginning of the sentence. It would be a hassle to write extra code to spell out each number in words:

``````if NumberOfCloseVotesNeeded = 1 then
println ("One close vote needed to close this question");
else if NumberOfCloseVotesNeeded = 2 then
println ("Two close votes needed to close this question");
println ("Three close vote needed to close this question");
else if NumberOfCloseVotesNeeded = 4 then
println ("Four close votes needed to close this question");
``````

``````printlin (NumberOfCloseVotesNeeded, " close votes needed to close this question");
``````

So, even though I would recommend spelling out the word in a written report, or in a meta post:

Three close votes were needed to close the question.

I would recommend against making a clunky change to software simply to make an automated sentence to conform to a style guide.

• Keenly observed and brilliantly answered! I did read the page and now clear about it. My special thanks for explaining the software matter! Dec 6, 2013 at 11:24
• +1 for "I would recommend against making a clunky change to software simply to make an automated sentence conform to a style guide." Note there are better ways to do it than the example, but the basic point is correct.
– Jay
Dec 6, 2013 at 14:41
• @J.R. You probably can't tell from my earlier comment, but I consider laziness to be a virtue :-) But if it were really important to write out the numbers, programmers would have no problem doing so. In this case, I think it's actually better using numerals, so there's no need to justify avoiding the cost of implementing it the other way.
– user230
Dec 6, 2013 at 16:27
• (I think I'll remove my earlier comment since it sounds more negative than I intended. I'm used to using lazy without a negative connotation, honest! For me, it comes from Larry Wall's Programming Perl, where laziness is described as one of the three virtues of a programmer.)
– user230
Dec 6, 2013 at 16:44
• @JohnQPublic Yeah, I've seen style guides that suggest re-wording the sentence to avoid putting a number at the front in such cases. IMHO that depends a lot on how clumsy the resulting sentence is. I much prefer "1,237 replies were received from interested people" then "The number of replies received from interested people was 1,237". When you find yourself having to say "the number of which" or such awkward constructions, I just say, stop, no, break the rule.
– Jay
Dec 6, 2013 at 21:54

The general rule that I think you will find in most style guides is:

In general, use hindu-arabic numerals for large numbers but spell out small numbers. My MLA Handbook says to spell out numbers that take one or two words. Elsewhere I've heard for numbers less than 20. Either way, you would write "two" instead of "2" but "6,924" rather than "six thousand nine hundred twenty-four".

But, do not begin a sentence or title with a numeral. (That's the specific rule here.)

If you give two related numbers and one calls for numerals, give both in numerals. For example, "The distances range from 5 to 150 miles." It would look odd to write "from five to 150".

In a technical document where you are using many numbers, use numerals for all measurements and similar ideas. But still write out small numbers for non-measurements. Example: "We measured the amperage two times and got results of 9 amps and 14 amps." Note "two" but "9" and "14".

Always use numerals for page numbers and in addresses and dates.

For very large numbers, you may use a mix of words and numerals if this is more clear. Like, "2.5 million" is probably preferable to "2,500,000" in many cases.

• It all depends on the style guide, but with a number as simple as 2,500,000, I'd say two and a half million would be a better choice. For complex numbers, like your 6,924 example, I agree with you though Dec 6, 2013 at 21:30

This Grammar Monster article advises that one should not start a sentenced with a number in figures, except possibly when it represents a year, but gives no reason except that doing so is "untidy", which does not seem much of a reason to me.

"Three Tips for Starting a Sentence with a Number" from Erin Wright give much the same advice, but says that:

starting a sentence with a number can be confusing or disruptive for readers—doing so is generally grammatically acceptable if you follow the three guidelines outlined below

Those guidelines being to spell the number out, reword the sentence so the number is not at the start of the sentence, and to consult the relevant style guide. The article mentions that:

Our four primary style guides (i.e., The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and the MLA Handbook from the Modern Language Association) all agree that numbers should normally be spelled out at the start of sentences.

This tip from the MLA Style Center says:

Since you should never begin a sentence with a numeral, you should first try to reword the sentence. If you find it unwieldy to reorder your words, spell out the number.

But it also give no particular reason for the rule.

"Can you start a sentence with a number?" from TopContent advises:

When writing, it is always important to be able to have a flowing and readable structure. One of the fastest and most noticeable ways to mess this up is by beginning a sentence incorrectly. Both new and experienced writers often struggle with what they can and cannot start a sentence with, often having been taught one thing and sticking to it.

The post goes on to recommend some of the same solutions, with some added specifics of not using a number at the start of a sentence, even spelled out, if it is followed by a unit of measure, includes a decimal point, is a percentage, or is a large number. The post also suggests consulting a style guide.

This suggestion of "flow" seems a bit more to the point to me.

Finally "Seven (or 7?) Tips On Starting A Sentence With A Number" from Michael Blumfield, posting on LinkedIn, says:

We’ve established structures for signaling to readers that we’ve reached the end of one sentence and we’re beginning another. This is so built in to our way of writing that we don’t think about it:

• Use a period to say you’re done with one sentence.
• Put a space – or in the old days, two spaces – between the period and the next sentence.
• Capitalize the first letter of the word beginning the new sentence.

Looked at that way, spelling out the number is the equivalent of that capital first letter. It’s a way of saying, “This is the beginning of a sentence.”

Without the contrast between the word and numeric form, there's no way to indicate that shift. You could say that the period and space are enough, but if so, why not start sentences with a lowercase letter in the first word?

The post goes on to say that the rule is outdated, and in many cases can now be ignored.

I find this rationale -- that a digit cannot be capitalized and so makes the start of a sentence less clear, persuasive. I had long known and followed the rule, but with no clear idea why. This gives what seems to me a good reason for the rule, better than that for many rules of English usage.

We also see that there is wide and varied agreement on the basics of the rule, which is enough to make it clear that this is a customary part of English usage.