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Billion and other large numbers

Where I am from (Barbados) I grew up knowing a Billion to = 1000 000 000 000, not 1000 000 000, and it was some years before I learned to use both. Unfortunately, cultural penetration by American standards and culture means that many of our children use the American standard, while some of us (like me at 23, and most people older than myself) are stuck with a mind that thinks in the British standard.

With that preamble out of the way, I am wondering which standard I should use for a novel (which I am writing). Personally I prefer to use the British standard (because that is what I am accustomed to, and it is troubling to use the American standard). However, I don't want to run into problems, so what should I do?

Is it enough to simply put a disclaimer (using an asterisk and pointing out why)?


2 Answers 2


Sorry if this disappoints you, but we British have now abandoned the 'million million' billion. We now use the American billion (one thousand million) and American trillion (one million million).

In British English, a billion used to be equivalent to a million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000), while in American English it has always equated to a thousand million (i.e. 1,000,000,000). British English has now adopted the American figure, though, so that a billion equals a thousand million in both varieties of English.

The same sort of change has taken place with the meaning of trillion. In British English, a trillion used to mean a million million million (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000). Nowadays, it's generally held to be equivalent to a million million (1,000,000,000,000), as it is in American English.

How many is a billion?

  • That's sad, because some of us still remember and abide by the old ways :( (and I wish people would). I guess we can't beat change :'(. Now I will go cry in a corner (don't try to console me).
    – RolandiXor
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 1:23
  • Hey man, I know I learned that too when I was a kid! I don't even know when it all changed. I would never have given in to this if I had my way. :(
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 1:24
  • 1
    @z7sg I refuse to let it die though. When I have children they must know the history of it :).
    – RolandiXor
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 1:31
  • 1
    Well, the Yanks have already given us megabucks, so presumably it won't be long before we have gigabucks and terabucks. And if inflation gets really bad, we'll end up with budget deficits measured in zettabucks and yottabucks*. Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 1:34
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: well, the US national debt is already at 14 terabucks… and the UK one at just under a teraquid. (Which sounds like it should be another name for amphibians.)
    – PLL
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 1:55

The recommendation I've seen in scientific writing is to avoid using the words "billion", "trillion", "quadrillion", etc. and instead use either:

  • "thousand million", "million million", etc.,
  • unit prefixes, if the number has associated units, or
  • scientific notation.

(Incidentally, a related recommendation is to use "." as a decimal point and spaces as digit-group separators, due to the lack of a common standard use of "." and "," among European countries. So fifty million plus one half is "50 000 000.5".)

  • I like to use that convention (I'm a bit of a science nut :P) - but it gets tedious.
    – RolandiXor
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 2:09
  • I think you mean "lack of a common standard" rather than "nonstandard use" - in France, for example, use of "," for decimal point is entirely standard. As Tannenbaum said, the nice thing about standards...
    – psmears
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 7:55

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