Errors No More Egregious Than Confusing “Million” and “Billion”

Hey, I get it. “Million” and “billion” sound basically the same. When written, they differ by a single letter. Both mean “more dollars than I have at the moment.” On a purely sensory level, swapping them feels like confusing “affect”/“effect” or “allusion”/“illusion,” or Natalie Portman/Keira Knightley. An honest mistake.

And yet . . .

Errors 2

There is no surefire way to avoid the verbal slip-up. I make it myself from time to time. But to drive home the chasm of difference between these two, imagine making similar mistakes on more familiar numbers…

Errors 3Errors 6Errors 7Estimation 1720170612082040_00022Errors 9Errors 8


9 thoughts on “Errors No More Egregious Than Confusing “Million” and “Billion”

  1. Since humans tend to infer difference logarithmically, million to billion is is the same as going from 6 to 9*. I can count both those numbers without taking off my shoes so they must be similar.
    * – Except in Europe and related jurisdictions where million to billion is exactly like going from 1 to 2.

    1. in Hebrew, we have:
      Thousand = 1,000
      Million = 1,000,000
      Milliard = 1,000,000,000
      Trillion = 1,000,000,000,000

      Not sure how this came about, but I think it reduces miscommunications.

      1. In Swedish there is:
        Miljon: 1 000 000
        Miljard: 1 000 000 000
        Biljon: 1 000 000 000 000
        Triljon: 1 000 000 000 000 000

        Conclusion: SI prefixes are the only way to not be confused.

  2. In the early days of electronic trading systems, I was out to buy the relatively small amount of $150,000 worth of US Treasury bills. But since bills trade in increments of 1,000, the system would automatically add a comma. So, I committed to buy $150 million. I was unaware of it until Lehman brothers called me to thank me for the trade.

  3. I heard another way using money that seems to boggles peoples minds. If I gave you a crisp $1000 bill and said go out tonight and have a blast I would probably be an epic night with some friends. How tall would a stack of those crisp $1000 dollar bills would it take to equal 1 million dollars? Some guessing… It’s roughly four inches tall. Now how tall for a billion? 333 feet of $1000 dollar bills stacked one on top of the other. What about a trillion dollars? 63 miles. If you walked for 63 miles you could reach down every four inches and pick up a million dollars.

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