Thousands and Millions

When I was a cub reporter working on my very first Show Daily newspaper for the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), I made a huge gaffe. Top story. Big headline. Above the fold. Some offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico was going to have an oil processing capacity of 30 million BPD, rather than 30,000 BPD.

First thing that happened when I got to the press room the morning that issue came out, my boss, a very good-natured person (thankfully), gently made fun of me, gave me a reality check, informed me that no such offshore platform exists, and suggested I never make that same mistake again. Especially in the top story, big headline, above the fold.

The cause for my big error is the subject of today’s tip. Apparently I had tried to block this bad experience from memory, but such memory was jogged and brought to the fore by the good old Peanut Gallery. Peter writes:

“It would be great if you could talk about the discrepancies in the way that people abbreviate thousands, millions, and billions…. In the UK (and many other places that use the metric system) we tend to favor the ‘K’ for thousand and ‘M’ for million, whereas the American method is usually to utilize ‘M’ for thousand and ‘MM’ for million…. Although subtle, there is, of course, a risk of misreading numbers by serious margins.”

Ah, yes, it all comes back to me now. Because I never took a shorthand class, I abbreviate like crazy when taking notes, and I usually use K for thousand, M for million and B for billion. And I remember that the guy giving that OTC presentation used M for thousand in his tables and charts, so I probably copied that down and translated it to “million” rather than “thousand” when typing up my article. Ouch! Yes, Peter, you can misread numbers by serious margins. Been there, done that.

So why is there such a discrepancy, and what shall we do to avoid any confusion in the future?

According to How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement, by Russ Rowlett at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, M is the Roman numeral for 1000, so sometimes it is used to indicate a thousand, as in Mcf (1000 cubic ft). “Given the widespread use of M to mean one million,” he says, “this older use of M to mean 1000 is very confusing and should be scrapped.”

Of course, this won’t happen in the oil and gas industry, where Mcfd and MMcfd are used every day of the week. (Exception: MeV means a million electron volts.)

Here’s what the SPE Style Guide recommends:

Large, rounded numbers should be written with the words “million” and “billion” or expressed in powers of 10 notation, with the number before the × greater than 0 and less than 10. Spell out the preceding numerals if nine or less, except with sums of money or units of measurement (hours, days, years, and other units of time are considered units of measurement). Never use “billion,” “trillion,” etc., with SI metric units.

40 million     six million consumers      8 × 106 m3/d      USD 4 million

The word “million” takes up a lot of real estate in tables of data or in a budget spreadsheet, so \$10MM is commonly used. For thousands in this circumstance, I would use \$10K to avoid confusion. In fact, I would use K as an abbreviation for thousand just about everywhere except Mcf and MMcf – just so I don’t have to go through that kind of embarrassment in the press room ever again!