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Oliver L. Campbell : Billions, Commas and Points

 

A billion is not the same the world over. Practically all European countries, and many others, use the “long scale” billion which is a million millions i.e.
1,000,000,000,000 or 10 to the power of 12, whereas in the USA they have always used the "short scale" billion which is a thousand millions i.e. 1,000,000,000 or 10 to the power of 9. It was only in 1974 that the United Kingdom government decided to change to the short scale so both the UK and USA would mean the same thing when talking of billions.

Since the long scale is so widely used, but the short scale is common in English speaking countries, care must be taken when talking about billions. The French have a word for the short scale billion which is a "milliard" and the Spanish have adopted the same word as a "millardo." However, in Spanish it is more common to write, for instance, $5.500 millones rather than $5,5 millardos.

The rule is that, in the short scale, each term is greater than the previous one by thousand million, so that a million has 6 zeros, a billion has 9 zeros and a trillion has 12 zeros. In the long scale, each term is greater by a million millions. It is said the origin of billion is bi-million which is a million squared i.e. with 12 zeros, and of a trillion it is tri-million which is a million cubed i.e. with 18 zeros. Scientists and mathematicians have no problem because they use that simple annotation 10 9, 10 12, 10 18 etc.

Don’t worry much about the long scale, but understanding the short scale and its definition of a billion is important because the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, among other central banks, have recently lent billions of pounds and dollars to commercial banks, injected billions of those currencies into the economy, and will need to borrow billions of them from their citizens to pay for it all. In the past, you only used to read about billions in books on astronomy, but no longer.

This leads me to another difference between English speaking countries and many others, including those using the Napoleonic Code. I often write articles in Spanish and then translate them into English and vice versa. This means I have to be most careful with numbers because the commas and points are reversed--10,000,000 becomes 10.000.000 while 3.14159 becomes 3,14159 and 16.67% becomes 16,67%. Strangely, Switzerland uses apostrophes instead of points e.g. 10’000’000.

To confuse matters further, there is an international standard on numbers that hardly anybody knows about. It is ISO 31-0 which establishes a) the decimal sign can be either a comma or a point on the line, b) that commas and points can only be used to separate a whole number from its following fraction, and c) large numbers should be separated by a space between groups of three and never by a comma or a point. That means ten millions should not be 10,000,000 or 10.000.000 but 10 000 000. In practice, the standard is ignored and the distinction is still the reversal of commas and points as separators.

Why can't we agree on one system? It is like driving on the left or right where neither is likely to change. Just give thanks we carry out the four mathematical operations in Arabic numerals and not Roman ones.

If you have had the patience to read this article, then thanks a billion--with either nine or twelve zeros!

 

 

Oliver L Campbell , MBA, DipM, FCCA, ACMA, MCIM was born in El Callao in 1931 where his father worked in the gold mining industry. He spent the WWII years in England, returning to Venezuela in 1953 to work with Shell de Venezuela (CSV), later as Finance Coordinator at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). In 1982 he returned to the UK with his family and retired early in 2002. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

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Petroleumworld News 09/22/09

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