Zeroes and ones

2 Jun

And the fact box read:

Picture 9

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.

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9 Responses to “Zeroes and ones”

  1. Picky June 3, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    Although there might be a smidgeon of ambiguity … for instance if those commas weren’t commas at all but those decimal points some misguided foreigners use that look very much indeed like commas … because then I suspect the bn might be correct (although numbering systems are somewhat beyond me).

    • edlatham June 3, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

      Yes, that’s right! On the continent, the table would have been correct – nerve-rackingly huge difference in one little punctuation mark.

  2. Picky June 5, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    And (he added) there’s another sort of ambiguity possible: what value of billion? Because I believe there are still parts of the world that use the long-form billion (a million million), as indeed we did ourselves in my youth. And there was a time of ambiguity when both the red-blooded home-grown British billion and the feeble cheapskate American one were both to be seen roaming our media. I’m not sure whether it was descriptivism or prescriptivism that finally slit the throat of the long-form version of the billion in Britain, although the Government’s prescription of the short form some time in the 1970s, I think, for national statistics is probably to blame (or to be commended as the case may be – Fowler One simply points out the difference, but Gowers’ Fowler Two actually calls for the change to the American value, saying the British billion was of use to no-one but astronomers!).

    • edlatham June 5, 2013 at 10:05 am #

      Yes, I would guess that must have been a prescribed change – imagine subeditors laboriously converting short-scale billions into long-scale ones in every budget day story because one’s publication disagreed with the government’s adoption of the American billion. The possibilities for error are too manifold and hideous to contemplate.

  3. Picky June 5, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Indeed. I can remember when the two forms were both common my practice was always to check which was meant and then convert to millions. It was the only way to avoid misleading at least part of the readership.

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