Vocabulary in English

Numbers in English: The Ultimate Guide

Numbers in English: The Ultimate Guide

This is the ultimate guide to numbers in English. Also check out Maths Vocabulary in English: Do You Know the Basics?

Saying numbers in English can be tricky.

In fact, some of the most advanced learners make mistakes saying numbers in English. A lot.

But it’s important to get them right, right?

We need numbers all the time.

We need numbers when we talk about money or how long that really boring film was or or what the temperature is or the size of your new elephant factory.

Numbers are everywhere!

So let’s make you an expert in saying numbers in English!

Free test - Gymglish with Clark and Miller

Big numbers in English

First, you try!

OK. Take a look at these sentences and see if you can say the numbers correctly.

Don’t move on to the next part until you’ve tried to say them. It’s like a test — but a fun one!

  • There were about 120,000 people at the gig. It was massive!
  • We produce 342,876,288 cans of elephant food every year.
  • I can’t leave until I’ve beaten Kat’s score of 12,073. I’m going to be here all night.

Was I right?

Well, let’s see if you were right.

120,000 = “one hundred and twenty thousand” or “a hundred and twenty thousand”
342,876,288 = “three hundred and forty-two million, eight hundred and seventy-six thousand, two hundred and eighty-eight” (phew!)
12,073 = “twelve thousand and seventy-three”

What are the rules here?

OK. There are four things you should think about here.

1. Break big numbers up into pieces!

See the commas between the numbers? (They’re full stops in most languages but not in English — because English likes to be different!)

Those commas show you how to break the number up. So just say the numbers between the commas and add “billion,” “million,” “thousand,” etc. afterwards:

Break large numbers into pieces

Note: To avoid confusion between commas (,) and full stops (.) in big numbers, there’s an international standard. What’s the solution? Just uses spaces.

324,678,129 → 324 678 129

2. Don’t make “one hundred,” “one thousand,” etc., plural!

Just remember, when we’re saying a big number, the numbers are not pluralised:

So don’t say:
4,000 — “four thousands

Say:
4,000 — “four thousand”

3. Say “and” after “hundred” (if you prefer British English)

Did you notice the “and”?

Basically, every time we say “hundred,” we say “and” next.

Large numbers: add 'and' after 'hundred'

Remember — this doesn’t work if there are just zeros after the hundred:

Large numbers: don't add 'and' before zeros

But it’s worth remembering that most English speakers don’t add “and” — it’s usually just the Brits. So you can ignore this rule if you like.

4. “One hundred” or “a hundred” — it doesn’t really matter

With the following numbers, you have freedom of choice:

100 = “one hundred” or “a hundred”
1,000 = “one thousand” or “a thousand”
1,000,000 =  “one million” or   “a million”

Yay, freedom!

Saying prices in English

First, you try!

OK. Look at these sentences. How do you say them?

  • That one only costs $1.89! Let’s get it!
  • They really wanted to sell the house for £200,000, but in the end, they had to accept half that.
  • Wow — €0.99? That’s cheap!

Was I right?

OK. Let’s check:

$1.89 = “one dollar eighty-nine (cents)” or “one dollar and eighty-nine cents” or “one eighty-nine”
£200,000 = “two hundred thousand pounds” or “two hundred grand” or “two hundred K”
€0.99 = “ninety-nine cents”

What are the rules here?

There are two main rules at work here:

1. Word order of prices

In the first example ($1.89), did you notice how we said the first number first (1), then the currency ($), then the other number (89)?

That’s the order we use when we talk about prices:

How to say prices in English

Remember, we don’t have to say “cents” (or “pence” or “Kopek,” etc.). It’s clear from the context.

In fact, very often we don’t even say the currency. So you could just say:

That'll be five ninety-nine, please.

2. Using “grand” or “K” instead of “thousand”

If you’re talking about big numbers all the time, it doesn’t make sense saying a long word like “thousand” again and again.

Fortunately, we can shorten “thousand” to either “grand” or “K.”

Grand, K and Thousand

But remember, it only works when the number is exactly on the thousands:

Don't say 'grand' or 'K' if the number has hundreds

Saying the time correctly

First, you try!

OK — can you say these times correctly?

Be careful here. I’ve written these all in 24-hour time, but we don’t say all of them in 24-hour time. Think about the context!

  • The film about sushi starts at 19:00. Don’t be late!
  • The plane leaves at 17:43. Then the adventure begins!
  • The next train leaving platform 4 will depart at 15:00.
  • Shall we meet at around 18:30?
  • You’re late! It’s 08:03.

Was I right?

Let’s see!

19:00 (in this situation) = “seven” or “seven p.m.” or maybe “seven o’clock”
17:43 (in this situation) = “seventeen forty-three”
15:00 (in this situation) = “fifteen hundred hours”
18:30 (in this situation) = “six thirty” or “half-past six” or “half six”
08:03 = “eight oh-three” or “three (minutes) past eight”

What are the rules here?

Most of the rules here are a bit different because they depend on context.

1. When speaking informally, don’t use 24-hour time

So when we’re hanging out with our friends (like in the first and fourth examples), we almost never use 24-hour time.

And when you do use 24-hour time, never use “o’clock” or “half past” or “5 to” or any of the normal “telling the time” stuff.

We just say the numbers.

That means we don’t say “nineteen o’clock.” Ever. Just never say it!

And we never, ever, ever say “half past twenty.”

Instead, we just use 12-hour time.

So don’t say “nineteen o’clock.” Instead, say “seven o’clock.” Thinking of saying “five past twenty”? Don’t! Say “five past eight” instead.

When I explain this to English learners, they often ask, “But how do you know whether it’s morning or evening?”

And my answer is always the same: If you like, you can say “p.m.” or “a.m.” to clarify. But how many people go to the cinema at 7 in the morning? Usually, the context is clear enough.

And then they say, “Thanks. Also, your hair is looking great today.”

2. 24-hour time for scheduled events (usually transport)

When we’re talking about a train or a plane or a bus leaving, we can use 24-hour time, and it doesn’t sound too weird, even when we’re talking to friends (like in the second example).

And we can certainly expect to hear it when it’s being announced at an airport or station (like in the third example).

The 14:00 to Amsterdam has been delayed ... by 4 days.

3. There are three ways of saying “half past something”

… and none of them includes “o’clock.”

You can say “06:30” in three different ways:

  1. “It’s half past 6.” (half past + number)
  2. “It’s 6 thirty.” (number + thirty)
  3. “It’s half 6.” (half + number) — this one’s a bit informal, and it will confuse Germans.

But you can never, ever, ever say “it’s half past 6 o’clock.”

Remember, we only use “o’clock” when the time is on the hour (“two o’clock,” “four o’clock,” “one o’clock,” etc.) and no other situation!

4. Use “oh”

The last example above (3:03) is a little tricky. If you have to express a time like this, instead of saying “zero,” just say “oh.”

3:03 = “three oh-three”
1:08 = “one oh-eight”

Saying decimals in English

OK. You may be wondering what a “decimal” is.

Well, you’re about to find out!

First, you try!

First of all, let’s try saying these sentences:

  • According to my calculations, the answer is 6.66666666666666666666666666666666 …
  • Yes, we must angle the mirror at precisely 45.665° to destroy the ships and rule the world!
Archimedes burns ships with mirrors
This may or may not have actually happened.

Was I right?

OK, let’s check it!

45.665° = “forty-five point six six five degrees”
66.6666666666… = “sixty-six point six recurring”

What are the rules here?

There are three things to remember here:

1. Say “point” in decimal numbers

Simple rule, right? Just say “point” and not “dot” or “full stop.” Or “elephant.” Definitely don’t say “elephant.”

2. After “point,” say the numbers one by one

Mathematically speaking, the numbers after the point (665 in the example above) are not hundreds. So we don’t say “six hundred and sixty-five.”

After the point, we just say the numbers one by one (“six six five”).

3. When numbers repeat forever, just say “recurring”

Maths is weird, and I find it strange that stuff like this can happen with numbers.

But when you have the number 6 repeating itself forever, I’d recommend not saying the number again and again until you die of thirst or boredom and all your friends have left the room.

Just say it once and add “recurring.”

Sometimes, more than one number repeats itself over and over, like this: 12.131313131313 …

In this case, just say the pair of numbers that repeat themselves (in this case “one three”) and add “recurring.”

12.131313131313 … = “twelve point one three recurring”

First, Second, Third… (ordinal numbers)

First, you try!

You know what to do:

  • Shall we move the meeting to the 3rd?
  • He came in 1st. Again! The man’s a machine!
  • You are currently 256th in the queue. Your call is important to us. Please hold.

Was I right?

3rd = “third”
1st = “first”
256th = “two hundred and fifty-sixth”

What are the rules here?

There are a few very simple rules here.

1. Use “the” (or the possessive)

Because ordinal numbers are very specific (How many first places are there in a race?) we almost always use “the” before them.

Make it an automatic habit!

Here’s a quick tip, not just for ordinal numbers but generally in English:

You don’t have to use “the” if you have a possessive.

So you can say:

The third horse on the left is looking at me strangely.

But you can also say:

May I introduce you to my seventh wife?

2. Use “-th” for ordinal numbers after 1st, 2nd and 3rd

Generally speaking, to create an ordinal number, you just add “-th.” (Although sometimes the spelling can be tricky.) Click here for the full list of ordinal numbers.

1stfirst
2ndsecond
3rdthird
4thfourth
5thfifth
6thsixth
7thseventh
8theighth
9thninth
10thtenth
11theleventh
12thtwelfth
13ththirteenth
14thfourteenth
15thfifteenth
16thsixteenth
17thseventeenth
18theighteenth
19thnineteenth
20thtwentieth
21sttwenty-first
22ndtwenty-second
......
30ththirtieth
40thfortieth
50thfiftieth
60thsixtieth
70thseventieth
80theightieth
90thninetieth
100thhundredth
1000ththousandth
1000,000,000thmillionth

It’s the same for small numbers:

This is the fifth computer he’s bought this year.

And big ones:

You’re the ninety-ninth person to ask me that today.

But be careful. If you’re making 1, 2 or 3 ordinal, remember that they’re completely different:

  • 1st  “first”
  • 2nd  “second”
  • 3rd  “third”

It’s the same for small numbers:

It’s the first Sunday of the month — and you know what that means!

And big ones:

It’s the fifty-second week of the year. Finally!

Saying Fractions in English

First, you try!

OK. You know the drill. How do you say these sentences?

  • The meeting should’ve just been 1 ½ hours, but because Eduardo wouldn’t stop talking, it went on for over 2 ½ hours. I was late for my tennis team meeting.
  • I don’t want all of it — can you just give me of the pizza? No, make it 2⁄6 … That’s, isn’t it?

Was I right?

1 ½ hours = “one and a half hours” or “an hour and a half”
2 ½ hours = “two and a half hours”
= “one-sixth” or “a sixth”
2⁄6 = “two-sixths”
= “one-third” or “a third”

What are the rules here?

1. Use an ordinal number on the bottom

Remember the ordinal numbers we talked about above?

We use them for fractions, too.

Let’s look at a simple fraction: ⅓

There are two numbers — “1” on the top and “3” on the bottom.

Simply say the number on the top normally — “one” — and the ordinal of the number on the bottom — “third.”

Then you have “one third.”

That’s it!

2. Make the bottom number plural if the top number is 2 or higher

Remember that if we’re dealing with a fraction that doesn’t have “1” on the top, the ordinal must be plural.

So let’s take another example fraction: ⅔

Take the number on the top as usual (“2”) and make the ordinal on the bottom plural, so “third” becomes “thirds” (because in this case, there are two of them).

= “two thirds”

3. Say “quarter” not “fourth” and “half” not “second”

When the bottom number is 2 or 4, we use “half/halves” and “quarter/quarters.”

Instead of saying ½ as “one second,” we say “one half” or “a half.”

And instead of saying ¼ as “one fourth,” we say “one quarter” or “a quarter.”

4. Get the order right with fractions!

The usual way to say these numbers is as you read them.

Let’s look at an example: 2 ½ hours

Say “two and a half” then “hours” (not “two hours and a half”).

How to say half in English

Simple and direct, yeah?

4. With 1 ½, there’s an alternative!

Do you remember at the beginning of this post, we saw how we can choose between “one hundred” and “a hundred?”

Well, it’s the same with “1 ½ ” — you can use “one” or “a.” It’s up to you, but remember that the word order is different:

An hour and a half

5. When we say 1 ½, the following noun becomes plural

Did you notice that in the example above, we said “one and half hours,” not “one and a half hour”?

This is a rule in English that a lot of books don’t talk about much.

But here I am … talking about it!

I guess the logic is that if the number is anything more than one (including 1.000000001), it’s officially plural.

Talking about the temperature

First, you try!

OK. Can you say these correctly?

  • In the middle of winter, it reached -40°C. My hair started freezing.
  • But then, in spring, it could get up to 1°C.
  • I have no idea whether 12°F is hot or cold.

Was I right?

-40°C = “minus forty degrees Celsius/centigrade” or “negative forty degrees Celsius/centigrade” or “forty (degrees) below (zero)”
1°C = “one degree Celsius/centigrade” or “one (degree) above zero”
12°F = “twelve degrees Fahrenheit”

What are the rules here?

1. There are three ways of talking about temperatures below zero

So when it’s that cold and your hair is freezing, then it’s probably below zero, right?

You can say:

  • “Minus 40 degrees” (minus + number + degrees)
  • “Negative 40 degrees” (negative + number + degrees)
  • “Forty (degrees) below (zero)” (number + (degrees) + below (+ zero))

Remember, you don’t need to say “Celsius” or “Fahrenheit” if it’s clear from the context.

In fact, you don’t even need to say “degrees” if it’s obvious you’re talking about the temperature.

Also remember: when you use the third option (with “below”), you don’t need to say “zero” or “degrees,” but only do this when it’s clear whether you’re discussing Celsius or Fahrenheit. And make sure that it’s clear that you’re talking about the temperature and not your downstairs neighbours.

2. Celsius or centigrade or Fahrenheit?

OK. This is pretty simple.

Celsius and centigrade are exactly the same. So don’t worry about mixing these ones up. Because it’s impossible!

Fahrenheit” is the weird measurement that the Americans use that I just don’t understand.

To me, Celsius makes sense: 0°C is where water freezes and 100°C is where it boils.

I think the best way to think about Fahrenheit is that between 50°F and 100°F is the human comfort zone! (50°F is 10°C and 100°F is almost 40°C.)

Talking about space

Not the space with aliens and frightening amounts of radiation. And Sandra Bullock acting badly (as usual).

I mean the space of a room or a box or a cave.

First, you try!

  • Yeah, we had to downsize. The new office is only 30m2. And there are 15 of us!
  • Watch this amazing man fit into a box that’s just 30cm3!
Contortionist in a box
Man in a box by Keith Allison | CC BY 2.0

Was I right?

30m2 = “thirty metres squared” or “thirty square metres”
30cm3 = “thirty centimeters cubed” or “thirty cubic centimeters”

What are the rules here?

1. There are two ways to say m2

This is pretty simple. You have a choice here.

You can say “12 metres squared” (number + “metres” + “squared”).

Or you can go for “12 square metres” (number + “square” + “metres”).

2. There are two ways to say m3

Again — it’s really straight-forward:

You can say “3 metres cubed” (number + “metres” + “cubed”).

Or you can say “3 cubic metres” (number + “cubic” + “metres”).

That’s it! Nothing else to see here. Please move on.

Talking about speed in English!

No, not the Sandra Bullock film. Please stop talking about Sandra Bullock.

First, you try!

OK. Remember to say these before reading on.

  • We don’t have enough road to get up to 88 mph.
  • This bike is capable of getting up to 45 km/h. Seriously.
  • The speed of light? It’s almost 300,000 km/sec.

Was I right?

88 mph = “88 miles per hour” or “88 miles an hour”
45 km/h = “forty-five kilometres per hour” or “forty-five kilometres an hour”
300,000 km/s = “three hundred thousand kilometres per second” or “three hundred thousand kilometres a second”

What are the rules here?

1. “Per hour” or “an hour”?

When we’re talking about speed, we have a choice — we can say “per hour” or “an hour” (or “per second” or “a second”).

But which one to use?

My advice is that in most situations, use “an hour.”

“Per hour” sounds a little more technical and formal.

But the difference is small here, so I wouldn’t worry about this too much. There are better things to worry about. Like global warming.

2. The units are plural

It’s important to remember that the distances here are very likely to be plural (unless we’re talking about 1mph or 1km/sec).

So remember that it’s “88 miles per hour” not “mile per hour.”

That is all!

Saying years in English

First, you try!

  • The great fire of London? That was 1666, I think.
  • My gran was one of the oldest people in my town when she died. She was born in 1905. Seriously! Her husband was born in 1900!
  • What did you do for New Year’s 2000?
  • I’ve been thinking about changing jobs since 2003. But I’m still here. Maybe next year.
  • They thought the world was going to end in 2012. But they also thought that the world was flat and that lizards are our rulers.
  • I can’t wait for 2020 and a new decade. This last one was a bit rubbish!

Was I right?

1666 = “sixteen sixty-six”
1905 = “nineteen oh-five”
1900 = “nineteen hundred”
2000 = “two thousand”
2003 = “two thousand and three”
2012 = “two thousand and twelve” or “twenty twelve”
2020 = “twenty twenty”

What are the rules here?

OK. There’s a lot here. But the good news? It’s all pretty simple.

1. Cut years into two

For almost all the years, we cut them into two — the first two numbers and the second two:

How to say years in English

2. Remember “oh”

When the year ends with zero plus a number (e.g. 1903, 1109, 1601) just say “oh” instead of the zero (“nineteen oh-three,” “eleven oh-nine,” “sixteen oh-one”).

Remember, this only works for years after 1000 and not years beginning with 20 (e.g. 2009).

3. Use “hundred” or “thousand” when you see lots of zeros

If the year ends in double zero (e.g. 1400, 1100, 2100) just say “hundred” after the first numbers (“fourteen hundred,” “eleven hundred,” “twenty-one hundred”).

Remember, this doesn’t work for triple zero years (e.g. 1000, 2000, 3000). With these, we just say “thousand” (“one thousand,” “two thousand,” “three thousand”).

4. How to say 2001 – 2009

For some reason, when the year 2000 came, we decided to just forget all the rules we made for the years.

So we don’t say “twenty oh-one.” For 2001 to 2009, we say the full number (“two thousand and one,” “two thousand and two,” etc.)

But what about after that? What happens after 2010?

Apparently, no one can agree on this. So we hear people saying “twenty eleven” and other people saying “two thousand and eleven.” Those people have more energy.

“But that’s mad! Does this continue forever?” I can hear you asking.

The answer is “yes, it is mad” and “fortunately not.”

Because when we get back to 2020, we’re back to the old system again (“twenty twenty,” “twenty twenty-eight,” “twenty fifty-four,” etc.)


OK! You’ve made it to the end! Congratulations! You rule!

You are now a MASTER of saying numbers in English!

But you’ll need to do one more thing to really take in what you’ve learned today.

Look at these numbers — can you write them out in full?

  1. 188,198,023 m2
  2. $14.99
  3. 15:06 (with a friend)
  4. 13.131313131313 …
  5. 4 ½ km
  6. -15°C
  7. 45 mph
  8. 2001

Write your answers in the comments!


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12 thoughts on “Numbers in English: The Ultimate Guide

  1. So, let’s try:

    1. One hundred and eighty eight million, one hundred and ninety eight thousand, twenty three kilometers squared.
    2. Fourteen dollars ninety nine (cents)
    3. Three oh six (P.M.)
    4. Thirteen point thirteen recurrent.
    5. Four kilometers and a half.
    6. Fifteen degrees below zero (Celsius, centigrade).
    7. Forty-five miles per (an) hour.
    8. Two thousand and one.

    1. Great work Phil.

      1. — This is perfect, especially for American English. If you want, you can also add “and” to that last bit (“..and twenty-three kilometers squared.”) But you don’t have to!
      2. — Perfect!
      3. — Yes!
      4. — As far as I know (and I’ve had a good check on the internet), we don’t use “recurrent” in numbers like this. Use “recurring” instead.
      5. — Sorry! Check again! (the section called “saying fractions in English.” Good luck!
      6. — Awesome!
      7. — Yeah, yeah yeah!
      8. — Perfect!

      Great work Phil and well done for giving this a go!

      Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. I watched an old episode of QI last night. It’s the sort of thing I do when I’m waiting for another programme to start. It included the vital piece of information that, if you wrote all the numbers down in alphabetical order, the first odd number would be eight billion and eighty-five.

    1. Good question!

      Actually this is something that’s changing over time. British English still uses “one hundred AND sixty,” but a lot of Americans don’t use the “and.”

      I think it’s going to be redundant in the future, which means you can choose which one to use!

  3. I have a question about the years ! Are the Fifties, the Sixties etc. only used for the 20th century? Or Is it possible to say the Thirties in the 19th century (referring to a particular event or series of events in History)?

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