Writing Numbers – Periods or Commas?
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!
What is an Oxford comma?In a list of three or more items, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (usually “and” / “or”) preceding the final item in the list. For German native speakers, the use of the Oxford comma is a common source of confusion. For, according to German grammar, using a serial comma is a capital sin.
Example with Oxford comma:
We have subsidiaries in France, Russia, and China.
Example without Oxford comma:
We have subsidiaries in France, Russia and China.
Why is the Oxford comma sometimes used in English?One main reason for the use of the Oxford comma is to reduce ambiguity. Look at the following example that remains ambiguous without an Oxford comma:
I immediately called my superiors, Sally and Michael.
This sentence could either mean that the speaker called his superiors, as well as Sally and Michael, or that Sally and Michael are in fact the speaker’s superiors. By using an Oxford comma in this sentence, one could clarify that one means the former: I immediately called my superiors, Sally, and Michael.
Who uses the Oxford comma?This is hard to say. It is not a question of British vs. US English. For example, the Oxford Style Manual (2002) and the Chicago Manual of Style (2003) support the mandatory use of the Oxford comma, while The New York Times stylebook and The Economist style manual oppose it. In her bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), Lynne Truss sums up the issue nicely: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken” (p. 84).
To make a long story short:
As a German native speaker you don’t have to use the Oxford comma when writing English, but be aware of the fact that it may be used in English and that, depending on the sentence, it can be very helpful to reduce ambiguity.