Big numbers: the summary

Subject: Big numbers: the summary
From: Stan Brown <stbrown -at- NACS -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 1996 00:06:51 -0500

Last week, I asked in TECHWR-L about the U.S. versus British usage of
"billion", whether they still mean different things, and how techwrlers
write around the difference. This is the promised summary of responses.

Thanks to the folks who responded:
SANDRA CHARKER <scharker -at- ozemail -dot- com -dot- au>
Chris Hulin, writing from caradoc -at- spidernet -dot- com -dot- cy (Linda Hulin)
David Ibbetson <ibbetson -at- idirect -dot- com>

The consensus was that the old British billion (10^12, a million million)
is being crowded out by the U.S. billion (10^9, a thousand million), but
that the traditional British usage is not yet dead.

Some details:
- _The Economist_ uses the U.S. billion on both sides of the Atlantic.
- The BBC World Service began using the U.S. billion a year or so ago.
- An Australian survey (probably done in 1995) by the Dictionary Research
Centre of Macquarie University found that 65% of respondents
understood "billion" as 10^9 and 33% as 10^12. _Modern Australian
Usage_ (1993) says the "old British and German usage [10^12] is
obsolescent in those countries and incorrect elsewhere."

Some work-arounds:
- Use metric (SI) prefixes.
- Use powers of 10 explicitly.
- Document your convention somewhere readers will find it, and refer to
"large numbers" several ways in the index.

Stan Brown, Oak Road Systems Cleveland, Ohio USA +1 216 371-0043
email: stbrown -at- nacs -dot- net Web:

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