And the fact box read:
That’s faithfully transcribed from the data, supplied from an authoritative-looking source. And this is inward investment into China, so we are talking about serious money. But look at the subheading, as provided in the original: “$bn”. Then look at the commas in the figures: commas, not points. That means that Japan’s investment position in China in 2010 was $106,303,000,000,000. One hundred and six trillion dollars.
That’s a sizeable chunk of inward investment. No wonder the Shanghai skyline is shooting up so fast. It’s also about seven times larger than the national debt of the United States, and approximately 30% larger than the GDP of the entire world. And that’s before you get to the US’s own contribution to the Chinese economy, apparently a healthy 63 trillion dollars. You begin to suspect that something might be wrong.
Of course – all together now – you know what they mean. They mean 106 billion dollars; the table needs to say $m, not $bn. But that’s not what they said. There’s no descriptivism in maths. Billion is not “widely understood to mean million in informal or conversational usage”. It means billion.
Numbers, notoriously, provoke a certain amount of fear in the journalistic profession, stuffed as it is with arts graduates who quail inwardly at the sight of a percentage sign. But in many ways, it’s actually comforting to find oneself working in a system of communication where clarity is still prized over ambiguity.