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Writing Numbers – Periods or Commas?

08 Feb 2015
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by Liz Naithani
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(comments: 9)
Use of periods and commas in numbers

One of the most common mistakes I see when proofreading bilingual annual reports (German/English) is that the periods and commas are placed incorrectly as delimiters in numbers and figures.

When writing figures, German speakers sometimes forget that the symbols used are different in German and English. In both German and in US/UK English, commas and points are used; they are, however, placed differently in the two languages.
Please note that there are different conventions when it comes to writing numbers, both in German (e.g. Duden or DIN standard DIN 5008), and in the different versions of English (UK, Canada, South Africa, etc.). For the sake of clarity I have boiled this complex topic down to the following rules for German and US/UK English when it comes to writing figures, e.g. in multilingual financial reports:

1. Symbol for the “decimal separator”

  • In German: „EUR 999,50“ or „EUR 2,5 Millionen“
  • In English: “EUR 999.50” or “EUR 2.5 million”


Notice how in UK/US English a decimal point, and not a comma, is placed as separator before the cents (the fractional part of the decimal number).

2. Symbol for the “thousands separator”

  • In German: „US-$ 400.456,50“
  • In English: “US-$ 400,456.50”


Notice how in US/UK English a comma, and not a point, is placed as a 3-digit group separator.

By the way:

To avoid confusion, especially in international documents, in recent years the use of spaces for digit grouping (preferably a "thin space") has been advocated in numerous German and English style sheets and standards. Example:

  • In English: “The yearly water consumption in New York is 42 705 gallons on average per capita.”
  • In German: „Der jährliche Wasserverbrauch in New York beträgt durchschnittlich 161 655 Liter pro Kopf.“

Which brings me to the next challenge: Different international measuring units – but that's another story for another day!

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Comment by Anonymous |

This information is incorrect. The decimal separator is not a dot in English, but in the United States and the United Kingdom, in South Africa (where the official language is English) for example they use the comma as the decimal separator, just like most of the rest of the civilised world.

Reply by Liz Naithani

Well, let's say the information is not complete. :-)
Thanks for the pointer – I must admit that so far I haven't worked on any project with South African English. Anyway, I updated the article to make it more precise.

Comment by Anonymous wrong wrong wrong! |

Obviously Anonymous is incorrect and anyone who has been to any of these countries would know!

Comment by abdul rahimov |

11
incidentally in russia, the separator for thousands -- 3 digit increments -- is the period, while the separator for decimals is the comma. the opposite of US practice.

Comment by Travis |

Question, in the US, a number like 84.3 would be written "eighty-four and three." I'm having Europeans insist there "eighty-four and three" would be 843. Also there has been heavy dispute on common practice vs. grammatical law. Would this law of 'and' meaning a decimal by the proper grammar of English extend to British English, or just American English grammar? Again, not looking for what most people use as mist people don't follow all the rules to proper linguistics, asking what's actually correct.

Note, security question is a quack, asking to add 5 and 6 isn't always 11, my answer of 56 is actually correct. 11 would be the sum.

Comment by Eden |

Thank you for the article. As a American scientist and bilingual technical communicator, I am often troubled on how to make sure my figures are correctly interpreted. Any idea as to how/why this this division occurred?

In response, to Travis:
84.3 is correctly said: eighty-four point three. In German, 84 komma 3 (vierundachtzig komma drei)
84 and 3 is incorrect because it's not precise. In this usage, it implies mathematical operation, ie 84 + 3=87. Historically, the numerical "and" was used with tens digits, ie 4 and 20 = 24. In German, the numbering is also this way, vierundzwanzig.
843 in English: eight hundred forty-three.

Comment by Peter |

In fact Anonymous is partly right. British Standard 303 (now superceded by BS 8888) introduced the European standard of writing numbers in the early 1970s (about the same time that the UK abandoned the long billion). BS 308 was originally primarily for technical drawings, but I believe that BS 8888 extends to other documentation relating to design.
There has been some spread of the European type format for numbers outside of the realm of physical engineering.
So, in engineering in the UK, the decimal point, "." has been supplanted by the comma; the thousands separating comma "," has been supplanted by spaces, and so on. Unfortunately, none of this seems to be taught in schools, so a quick re-education of new newcomers to engineering is the norm.
I hope that the old UK system of writing numbers gives way to the more sensible, more common standard in the same way that feet and pounds are disappearing in favour of metres and kilograms.

Comment by Aztekium.pl |

Very interesting article! Usefull informations!

Comment by useful informaton. |

We are planning to sign a contract in English language with a Germany company. But the figures are written like EUR 310.500,00. The lawyer asked us to change that writing style as: 31,500.00.

Comment by Tom |

With reference to "COMMENT BY ANONYMOUS | 2017-09-02"
In South Africa the SI and ISO standards are enforced. This is a boon.
No gm or gms for grams, or KM for kilometers, or L for litres or any such oddities are tolerated.
Mark your product with 'gm' for grams and expect a serious 'notification' from Standards.
The South African keyboard has the '1/2 space' for the thousands separator. This is used by all.

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