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Numbers in Words

Spanish Pinpointed

It’s said that even people who can waltz through a lie-detector test without so much as blinking will stumble if required to do arithmetic in a foreign language.

This probably wouldn’t be very useful for Sherlock Holmes to know in these days of $1 calculators, since it’s rather hard to find anyone who can do much arithmetic in their own language without the aid of an intelligent chip and LCD screen.

Numbers in Spanish — particularly big numbers — can be a bit tricky for native English speakers. The Spanish-speaking world still uses thousands of millions— miles de millones — for billions, and un billon is a million millions, or a U.S. trillion.

Whereas in English you would say “four point five billion,” the correct way in Spanish is “cuatro mil quinientos millones” (four thousand five hundred million). Written form is no less complicated.  It could be rendered “4 mil 500 millones,” or “4,500 millones.”  Four point five million, meanwhile, is “cuatro millones quinientos mil” or “4 millones 500 mil.

A particular trap for people in a hurry is when there are no hundreds of thousands, only tens of thousands.

So 4 mil 50 millones (four thousand and fifty million) is 4.05 billion, and easily confused with 4.5 billion.

A number of people who work in high finance do a lot of their business in English, and some get quite tongue-tied when mentally translating back into their native Spanish the numbers they are explaining.

The deal was worth, wait for it —”cuatro punto cinco billones, es decir, cuatro punto cinco, miles de millones” with a pause to think between cinco and miles.

While retaining the thousands of millions, Mexico has parted ways with continental Europeans and South America in that it separates thousands and millions with a comma, and fractions with a period, as in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. The use of an apostrophe to separate millions has survived in some old-fashioned documents, such as those “typed up” in backwater offices.

The flip side of this — i.e. difficulties for native Spanish speakers learning English — is the use of multiples of a hundred to refer to thousands. Sixteen hundred and forty-five, for example, in Spanish is mil seiscientos cuarenta y cinco (the “and” goes in a different place) and Spanish speakers have to stop and think about numbers expressed in that way in English.

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