Printed: 2019-06-27

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/treder20090505

When Numbers and Words Collide

Mike Treder


Ethical Technology


http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/IEETblog

May 05, 2009

If we had unique words for ten thousand and a hundred thousand, for ten million and a hundred million, it might make understanding of really big numbers more intuitive.

Look at these numbers:

$10
$100
$1,000
$1,000,000
$1,000,000,000
$1,000,000,000,000


Now consider these corresponding words:

ten dollars
hundred dollars
thousand dollars
million dollars
billion dollars
trillion dollars


Can you see the problem? The discrepancy? To the casual or untrained reader or listener, the ratios between between a million, a billion, and a trillion dollars do not seem intuitively different from the ratios between ten, a hundred, and a thousand dollars, when seen or heard in words.

Seeing them written out in figures does make a difference, although helping the average person understand the comparative magnitude of a trillion dollars as opposed to a billion dollars still can be difficult. But I suspect that the real problem begins with how we label (in English, anyway) the numbers that we use for counting.

Here is another list:

*one
*ten
*hundred
*thousand
  ten thousand
  hundred thousand
*million
  ten million
  hundred million
*billion
  ten billion
  hundred billion
*trillion

For the first four numbers above, we learn and read distinct words (marked *). But then as we continue the sequence, words are reused, and only every third word we encounter is new. This misleads us, unfortunately, into subconsciously assuming that the numerical distance between million, billion, and trillion is equivalent to the distance between ten, hundred, and thousand.

If we had unique words for the other steps (and those beyond them) on the list above - if ten thousand was called, say, decand, and hundred thousand was called cenand, and if ten million was called medillion, and hundred million was called mecillion, and so on - it might make understanding of really big numbers more intuitive.

Anybody want to take on this project and see it through to conclusion?  😊


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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