Millions and Billions

Q: How many zeros are in a billion?

A: That depends.

That depends on whether you are British or American, because the British Billion used to be equivalent to a million million (1,000,000,000,000), rather than a thousand million (1,000,000,000) like the American billion. The British Billion had twice as many zeros as a million, and the corollary was that a British Trillion had three times as many zeros, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, rather than the American trillion, 1,000,000,000,000. In other words, a British Billion was equal to an American trillion. Lately, however, the British have adopted the American Way.

I am using the capitalized Billion and Trillion here to denote the British “long scale” usage, with lower case billion and trillion to denote the American “short scale” usage. In the old British way, a thousand million was called a “milliard,” not a billion. Likewise, a thousand billion was called a “billiard,” which is about how much money I would lose if I had to play billiards (pool) for a living.

We shall stick to the following, and leave billiards to the pool hall:

thousand  = 103  

million = 106

billion = 109  

trillion = 1012  

In the 1960s, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen famously quipped: “A billion here, a billion there — pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

Here are a couple of interesting huge numbers:

Hella = 1027

Vigintillion = 1063  

Googol = 10100  

Centillion = 10303  

Q: When do you use the plurals “millions” and “billions”?

A: That depends.

If a number is in front of it, or if it is an expression of currency with a numeral, or if it has units of measure afterward, it is singular.


The viewing audience for the final World Cup game was estimated at 26 million.

The Opex budget increased by $40 million.

The sun is 93 million miles away from the earth.

Use the plural only if the number is fuzzy, but certainly more than one.


Millions of people die each year of hunger.

With this online business, you could make millions!


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