Globe public editor: The difference between millions and billions

By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

By Sylvia Stead, public editor of The Globe and Mail

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.

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.

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