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In Korean, it seems that in most of the cases you express number in Hangul, I think. However, there are other cases where you use Arabic numerals, such as:

가족을 2년 동안 못 만났어요.

I think it is just a preference by a writer, but is there any difference between them?

Also, given that both are correct in grammar, is there any chance that the one is more suitable for some cases and the other for other cases? Or may a reader recognize it differently?

I personally prefer Arabic numerals to Hangul because it makes the number more conspicuous than other letters, making me understand the sentence faster and better.

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  • I'm sorry but what did you mean by in most of the cases you express number in Hangul ? As far as I know modern Korean uses Arabic numerals to represent numbers as a norm. Writing 가족을 이년... instead of using the symbol 2 would be just like saying Haven't met family for two... in English – user17915 Sep 26 '16 at 16:17
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There may be some deeper underlying rule, but I have always used Arabic numerals for explicitness and brevity.

5시 45분에 일어났어요. (I arose at 5:45)

reads much more cleanly than

다섯시 사십오분에 일어났어요.

I use Arabic numerals almost exclusively when writing things like time, money, or page number of a book. Expressing age is another time I use Arabic numerals.

I think that there are obviously some exceptions to this or times that it doesn't really matter:

천원 is just as fast to read as 1000 원.

오후 일곱 시 is pretty much just as fast to read as 오후 7 시.

The use of Arabic numerals is a modern occurrence of course. Traditionally numbers were written out in 한글 or 한자. But modernly, most Koreans are totally fine using Arabic numerals. There may be some rule that I am unaware of. In written English for example, I was taught that in formal writing, numbers 0-10 are written out in words: zero, one, two, etc. After that, Arabic numerals are to be used: 11,12, 13, etc.

I am not a native Korean or trained formally in Korea in something like journalism (which has conventions of writing numbers probably).

These are just my observations. Because I come from an English speaking back ground (which has used Arabic numbers for centuries), I use Arabic numerals a lot even when writing Korean. No one has seemed to mind this.

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There are two ways to read numbers in Korean. One is to read Chinese character in Korean way and the other is to read in pure Korean way. When used in adjective forms, the latter changes while the former doesn't. Let me distinguish them for convenience.

(A) Chinese: 일, 이, 삼, 사, 오, ...

(B) Korean: 하나, 둘, 셋, 넷, 다섯, ...

(C) adjective Korean: 한, 두, 세, 네, 다섯, ...

When speaking Korean, we need to know which type should be used. When writing Korean, we often replace numerals with Arabic numerals. I don't know any written rules stating which type can be replaced. However, I am sure that it's okay to replace numerals of type (A).

In fact, I insist that Arabic numerals should always be used for type (A), unless you are writing literary articles. Korean sentences are sometimes ambiguous because there are many short words of different meaning with the same pronunciation. The use of Arabic one reduces the ambiguity. For instance, 이년 can be interpreted as '2 years' or 'this bitch'.

The situation is subtle for type (C). About 20 years ago, my Korean teacher claimed that Arabic numerals must be read as type (A). Although school teachers are not very reliable and languages change over time, I partially agree with him. But if we forbid the replacement for type (C), there is a problem. Type (A) and type (C) are not disjoint.

As we see in the answer by Vladhagen, it's common to use Arabic numerals to address time. Let's change the time for explanation.

5시 5분에 일어났어요.

다섯 시 오 분에 일어났어요.

It's weird but most Koreans use type (C) for hours and type (A) for minutes. Maybe it's because numbers used for minutes are bigger. Compare this with the following.

one apple: 사과 한 개(correct and common), 사과 일 개(very weird, maybe correct but not sure)

fifty apples: 사과 쉰 개(correct but not common), 사과 오십 개(correct and common)

In my opinion, there is no problem unless you use both Korean and Arabic in the same sentence. (다섯 시 5분 is a little strange.)

On the other hand, never use Arabic numerals for type (B). Look at the following sentences.

하나도 이해하지 못했다. (I couldn't understand a single thing.)

1도 이해하지 못했다.

I am not as stubborn as my teacher, but the second sentence is quite annoying. If I see such sentence, I get an impression that the writer is a kid enjoying using broken Korean.


In conclusion, my suggestion is the following.

(A) Use Arabic numerals.

(B) Never use them.

(C) Avoid using them if the Korean numeral is short hence not cumbersome.

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