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big numbers
searching for style guideline, if any exists
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New River, AZ, USA
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I find myself in need of using the awkward expression “thousand million” instead of the usual “billion,” just to impart a sense of magnitude to non-scientific types.

Then I started wondering if maybe “million thousand” would be better to get the point across. I considered “thousand thousand thousand” but rejected it because it just sounded too complex to understand.

Which then led me to the question: is there any style guide or linguistic rule that dictates one over the other. Mathematically, of course, the meanings are identical.

Didn’t find much help searching online. Ngrams provides this interesting result, but I have a hard time believing it.

Fort Worth, TX
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How about this.   Instead of trying to write it as you would normally write a number, write one thousand millions or perhaps one million thousands.   Get a feel which number,  million or thousand, is more comprehensible to your audience and then impress upon them that it is a large multiple of that.   I don’t know what a style guide would say but I think if you are trying to make a point, instead of just stating an amount, a style guide would not apply.

However, this may not fit with what you are trying to say. This would be more like a way to explain the size of the number itself rather than that many of something like stars. If that is the case you would need to explain the number first then say, “It’s that many stars.”

New River, AZ, USA
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Dick said: …write one thousand millions or perhaps one million thousands.

Haven’t yet decided whether the larger or smaller number should come first. But I like your suggestion of using the plural form for the second number. Makes it sound more like English than Mathlish.


Ron Draney
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Thousand million is a lot more familiar than million thousand, but the real problem is that we’ve grown numb to the word billion through overexposure. Somehow it just doesn’t seem that much bigger than a bare million, and few people have ever spent time thinking about the difference in scale. It’s too bad you can’t substitute a punchier word like “bazillion” to highlight just how much bigger it is.

One thing you might try is getting more scientific. Say “ten to the ninth power” or “a one followed by nine zeroes”.

And I agree with the point that you should follow it with an illustration. One I’ve always liked is to say that a million seconds is about a week and a half, while a billion seconds is over thirty-one years.

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Heimhenge said

Ngrams provides this interesting result, but I have a hard time believing it.

The overwhelming preference for “thousand million”? Not too surprising, as it’s the European way of expressing the number:

“In particular, a billion is 10^9 = 1 000 000 000 in the American system and 10^12 = 1 000 000 000 000 in the European system. For 10^9, Europeans say ‘thousand million’ or ‘milliard.'”

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Put ‘billion’ in the Ngram though, and it flattens the other 2 phrases.

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