Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Point or comma and general language confusion

Today in the files of "ain't different cultures confusing", I'd like to discuss the curious case of the decimal point. It took me nearly 30 years to discover that not everybody uses "." for a decimal point. And I'll bet there's at least one person reading this blog post who has just heard this for the first time.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that if something costs nearly two Euros in many parts of Europe, it'll be marked 1,99. But wait, it gets worse: big numbers can be clarified by using what I think is a decimal point, so a million can be written 1.000.000. The same applies in South America where the Spanish and Portuguese speakers use a similar system.


If this is a suprise to you too, the good news is that most of the time the context reminds you of what the number really is. If we're talking about the population of a country and it's written as 5.000.000, it's pretty clear we're talking millions. Similarly, a price per kilo label for oranges that says 4,32 is obviously 4 Euros and 32 cents. If you're measuring a room, though, and it's 4,326 metres long, you might do a double-take when you see that on a plan.

Whoever I speak to, they always argue the point (no pun intended) that their version of using points or commas is the most logical. It's obviously just a case of "nobody's right": it's just how you were brought up. Well, that's my $0.02 worth anyway. Or is that my $0,02?


[Thanks to lms.photo for the pic, via Flickr CC]

5 comments:

  1. When I first got back from Europe, I used to get tripped up all the time. After working there a while, you get used to the switcheroony. Many a number went a bit haywire.

    Like you say, so long as you know the context, and that the difference exists...it is fine.

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  2. You're right Andrea, context is everything. And knowing what's going on. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. But now you've got me wondering what the international standard is for scientists. Switching it around in general everyday life is one thing but could be disastrous when trying to communicate specs and technology - witness the Mars crash caused by one lot of scientists using imperial and the other lot thinking it was decimal.

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  4. I am still confused about that, too. Half of the programs on my computer are installed in Bulgarian (, for decimal point) and they keep on giving me errors when I try to use .

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  5. @ Ganzetal - hmm, good question! Even presuming they have an international standard it could be risky when they have to think/calculate under pressure ...

    @ muminsearch - same problem! For me it's my Paypal account since I set it up in Germany initially, it doesn't like me trying to send 100.00, it has to be 100,00. Very confusing.

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