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Public editor: What’s the difference between a million and a billion?

Can you imagine a million dollars?

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In 1945, C.D. Howe, a senior federal cabinet minister, was asked by the Opposition about cutting the billion-dollar war spending estimates by a million dollars, then a considerable amount of money. Although it is not clear that he answered this way, the Opposition famously shortened his answer and characterized it as: "What's a million?"

Today, I think we all have a good sense of what a million dollars looks like. If you own or want to own a house or condo in Canada, you are looking at an often sizable fraction of a million dollars in a purchase price.

The number many of us can't picture is a billion. But we also have trouble picturing the difference between hundreds of millions and hundreds of billions and The Globe and Mail's corrections show that it's a problem.

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Out of the thousands of references to million and billion in The Globe last year, there were a few mistakes. They could be simple typos or at times a failure to think about what those numbers mean.

Try this quiz based on corrections published over the past year on millions and billions and see if you think the reference should be to million or billion? How many would have stopped you as being obviously wrong? Answers below.

1. Are there 1.3 million or 1.3 billion plastic British banknotes in various denominations in circulation in the United Kingdom?

2. On the total life-cycle cost for 25 Canadian military ships, would it be more than $105-million or $105-billion over three decades?

3. Did Saudi Arabia reduce its oil production to 9.5 million barrels a day from 10.2 million or to 9.5 billion barrels from 10.2 billion?

4. What about Canada Post's pension solvency deficit: $6.5-million or $6.5-billion?

5. Did Super Bowl advertisers pay about $4-million or $4-billion for 30 seconds of airtime on this year's broadcast?

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6. Did one U.S. state offer $577-million or $577-billion to a car company to attract investment in a plant?

7. Would replacing Toronto's Gardiner Expressway free up $400-million to $500-million or $400-billion to $500-billion?

Answers:

1. Billion.

2. Billion.

3. Million.

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4. Billion

5. Million.

6. Million.

7. Million.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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