How Many is a Billion?

The ICAL TEFL Blog

Banknote: 1 billion dollars

An awful lot of money!

Simple question: How many is a Billion?

Awkward Answer: It’s not always what you think it is.

First, if you are American, then a billion is one-thousand-million:

1,000,000,000

This is known as a short-scale billion.

However, many British people regard a billion as one-million-million:

1,000,000,000,000

Which is known as a long-scale billion.

This is despite the fact that “officially” in the UK since 1974 (because of American influence) a billion is:

1,000,000,000

This means that in the UK and amongst British English speakers there’s often ambiguity as to how much a billion really is.

Alternative Billions

Other countries differ.

In most of Europe and South America a billion is long-scale; in other English speaking countries and Arabic countries a billion is short-scale.

So just remember this when you are dealing with this number in your TEFL class. What you might think of as a billion may well be different from what your students might think of as a billion and, as we’re dealing with a pretty big number here, it could make a lot of difference!

avoiding ambiguity

Sometimes you’ll see billion written as

1k million = 1,000,000,000

This makes it more international and avoids any ambiguity.

Useful Links

Numbers‏‎ in English Grammar – how to talk about numbers in English

American English‏‎ – about American English

British English – about British English

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