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Time Is the Topic of the Day

Writers often refer to the time of day in a scene, so it’s good to know when to spell out the time and when to use numerals. The rule is fairly simple. Times of day in even, half, and quarter hours are usually spelled out in text. With o’clock, the number is always spelled out.

  • Her day begins at five o’clock in the morning.
  • The meeting continued until half past three.
  • He left the office at a quarter of four (or a quarter to four. The a before quarter is optional).
  • We will resume at ten thirty.
  • Cinderella almost forgot that she should leave the ball before midnight.

Numerals are used (with zeros for even hours) when exact times are emphasized. Chicago recommends lowercase a.m. and p.m., though these sometimes appear in small capitals, with or without periods.

  • The first train leaves at 5:22 a.m. and the last at 11:00 p.m.
  • She caught the 6:20 p.m. flight.
  • Please attend a meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on December 5 at 10:30 a.m. (EST).

The 100 Percent Solution

If you are writing a technical or scientific paper, you would use the % sign. But in general or nonscientific writing, spell out the word percent. Except at the beginning of a sentence, percentages are usually expressed in numerals. You never want to begin a sentence with a numeral, so either rewrite so that doesn’t occur or spell out the number. Here are some good examples of correct usage:

  • Fewer than 5 percent of readers buy books at an actual bookstore.
  • With 90–95 percent of the work complete, we can relax.
  • A 75 percent likelihood of winning is worth the effort.
  • Her five-year certificate of deposit carries an interest rate of 5.9 percent.
  • Only 20% of the ants were observed to react to the stimulus.
  • The treatment resulted in a 20%–25% increase in reports of night blindness.

Percent, used as an adverb, is not interchangeable with the noun percentage (I know that 1 percent is a very small percentage). Note also that no space appears between the numeral and the symbol %.


I Wonder, Where Is That Comma?

This is a comma rule that I wasn’t even sure of myself and had to look up! I’ve seen it handled many different ways in manuscripts, but here’s what Chicago Manual of Style says: Questions are sometimes included within another sentence either directly or indirectly—not as a quotation but as part of the sentence as a whole. A direct question (unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence) is usually introduced by a comma. A direct question may take an initial capital letter if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.

  •  Suddenly he asked himself, where am I headed?
  • The question on everyone’s mind was, how are we going to tell her?
  • Legislators had to be asking themselves, Can the fund be used for the current emergency, or must it remain dedicated to its original purpose?

If the result seems awkward, rephrase as an indirect question. An indirect question does not require a question mark, nor does it need to be set off with a comma. Indirect questions are never capitalized (except at the beginning of a sentence). Here are ways to rephrase:

  • Suddenly he asked himself where he was headed.
  • The question of how to tell her was on everyone’s mind.
  • Ursula wondered why her watch had stopped ticking.
  • Where to find a reliable clock is the question of the hour.

And don’t put a question mark at the end of these sentences just because the word question is in there or a question is implied. I’m amazed at how many sentences I come across with question marks at the end and the sentence is not a question!