The Decimal Point or the Decimal Comma = Confusion


I was reading a companies financial turnover figure today, and decided to write a page on my confusion ūüėČ

When I first read the turnover figure for the Medion Computer Company I saw a figure of ‚ā¨ 1,432 billion.
This figure seemed way too much.  Almost One and a Half  Thousand Billion.

It dawned on me after a while. ¬†The Americans use the comma as a decimal point…. ¬†(or do they, maybe it was the Germans)

So, a British speaker who sees these figures will read the results as:

US 1,432 billion = 1,432,000,000,000
UK 1.432 billion = 1,432,000,000

Whilst in actual fact, they both mean 1,432,000,000

I was brought up knowing that 1,234,567.89 = 1 million, 234 thousand, 567 point 89
It can also be written as 1.234 million, in rounded figures.

A higher number of 1,234,567,890 is 1 billion, 234 million 567 thousand and 890
or as 1,234 million in rounded figures. SIMPLE

But, in some countries, they were brought up a different way, and that figure of 1,234 million would be read as 1 million, 234 thousand and not the 1 billion, 234 million that I would read it as.

This led me to doing some research into WHY a comma would be used as a decimal point, and I found that it is actually common in many countries.

The International System of Units (SI) is known as the metric system, although neither the US or the has adopted this totally.

The SI general rules state:
Decimal Marker

The symbol for the decimal marker shall be either the point on the line, or the comma on the line.

Thousands Separator

Spaces should be used as a thousands separator (1 000 000) to reduce confusion resulting from some countries using the commas or the decimal point, full stop, period. I have noticed this form being used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and always wondered why.

Which Countries us the full stop as a Decimal Point?

England, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines

Which Countries use the comma as the Decimal Point?

I thought that this was the United States, but reading the next quote from Cornell University in the United States, I am now even more confused.

International Currency Conversion
United States (U.S.) currency is formatted with a decimal point (.) as a separator between the dollars and cents. Some countries use a comma (,) instead of a decimal to indicate that separation. In addition, while the U.S. and a number of other countries use a comma to separate thousands, some countries use a decimal point for this purpose.

That University does have a page showing two lists:

Countries Using a Decimal Point to Separate Dollars and Cents
Countries Using a Comma to Separate Dollars and Cents
The page is at: www.dfa.cornell.edu/treasurer/…/conversion.cfm

But, it gets worse, who should I believe ?

I looked at a page on The University of Melbourne website http://extranet.edfac.unimelb.edu.au/DSME/decimals/SLIMversion/backinfo/overseas.shtml where it gives the following examples of use in different countries:

12 345.67 Australia today
12,345.67 Australia pre 1970’s
12.345,67 Italy, Argentina, Portugal, Vietnam
12345,67 Philippines
12,345.67 Greece
12,345.67 Hong Kong, Singapore
12 345,67 France
12 345.67 International system of units (SI units)

In fairness though the page does say: “This page, its contents and style, are the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of The University of Melbourne.”

Regarding the Australia usage as 12 345.67 in use from 1970.  I have doubts on this, the space instead of a comma, but maybe I should check my year 12 childs maths books, but I am sure I have always seen her  write as 12,345.67.

The Philippines usage? ¬†¬†12345,67 ¬† No comma and no space, ? ¬†I just asked a Filipino, and the reply was something like: “In all my years I have NEVER seen it like that” ¬†The¬†recognised¬†way in the Philippines is 12,345.67

1’234’567.89 is the quoted usage in Switzerland. ¬†That seems to ring a bell with me, the upside comma’s ūüôā

The French way ? ¬† One example I saw was how the French say¬†13,95 (13.95 in my normal way).. They speak it as¬†“treize virgule neuf cinq” which translates to “thirteen point nine five“. ¬†So they use the “point” in speech, but the “comma” in writing.

At least the Germans get it somewhat right with “dreizehn komma neun f√ľnf” translating to “thirteen decimal five nine” in the spoken usage.

But WHY did I think that the Americans use the decimal point instead of a comma ?

I checked another website, Wolfram Research,(the web’s most extensive mathematics resource) where I see this information…
Decimal Point ?

A raised period is used in Britain ¬†????? ¬†Oh yes, I remember now, in handwriting we did, actually I still do, but we don’t call it a period. ūüėČ ¬†I wonder how the younger generation in the UK write it, and if they still use handwriting ?


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Yes, it is a mess. The Style Manual for authors, editors and printers used by the Australian Government says:
¬®In English-speaking countries, commas have traditionally been used toseparate groups of three xdigits within a larger amount–for example $100,000. However, because a comma is used a decimal marker in Europe, a thin space is recommended instead of a comma to avoid confusion¬®
It then goes on to say that the use of the comma is still very common in Australia despite the official change in 1970 but official Australian Government publications should use the thin space.
The problem is that we are saturated by American style. We have abandoned decimal screen sizes and refer to the US 4¨, 5¨ and 10¨ for tablets and mobiles as have other countries. It is a balance and one not to get too fussed about.