Use of metric prefixes for small numbers


These days many I see many websites shortening large numbers with the metric prefixes, for example Twitter does it like this:

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replacing 35 400 with 35.4K, and 34 700 000 with 34.7M. One might also write the current year as 2k17 (though I don't understand what's the point of this as it doesn't save any letters).

Am I also allowed to use the same principle for shortening small quantities with the corresponding metric prefixes, like 0.0042 with 4.2m (m for milli) or 0.0000042 with 4.2μ (μ for micro)?

I'm primarily asking for the technical and scientific fields, but if you can also elaborate on usage in everyday life, this would be a nice addition.


Posted 2017-07-27T20:31:02.093

Reputation: 400

1You can, but no-one outside of a technical field will have the slightest idea what you mean! "Mu" is far from idiomatic, I'm afraid, and the difference between upper- and lower-case m will be lost on most readers outside of techical fields (and on some within them). (Also, "prefix" is counterintuitive here, because the notation is used as a suffix to the number.) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2017-07-27T20:33:58.070

@Max No, in my example with Twitter there is no units, just plain numbers, and the metric prefixes are used regardless. 4.2 meters should be written with a whitespace (4.2 m), as physical unit is always separated from the value, so there should be no confusion between 4.2m and 4.2 m. – andselisk – 2017-07-27T20:46:10.503

You say there should be no confusion, but I don't think the rule about whitespace is like a universally well understood rule. If you wrote "I walked 4.2m yesterday" I wouldn't think it's weird. – Senjougahara Hitagi – 2017-07-27T21:52:16.007

@SenjougaharaHitagi I'm afraid it is a universal rule. There was a discussion on English.SE regarding this topic. Absence of space between the value and the unit only signifies how illiterate the person is.

– andselisk – 2017-07-27T22:03:06.613

English has no governing body deciding what is correct. There are also degrees to which something is wrong. I'm just describing to you how I think most native English speakers would react. If you wrote "I walkzd 4.2 m yesterday", like 100% of the people would think "why is there a z there" or "this must be a typo". If you wrote "I walked 4.2m yesterday" maybe 10% of people who are grammar nazi will say it's wrong and cast judgement upon your soul, but the all the well adjusted individuals will not care. – Senjougahara Hitagi – 2017-07-27T22:21:10.527

1I don't think there are many cases in everyday life where you would use a unit-less non-fraction number (significantly) smaller than 1. And in technical/scientific fields every field has its own standards for units, but a unit-less number would usually be either spelled out, or written using scientific notation (e.g. 3,5 * 10^6). – HenryJekyll1886 – 2017-07-28T15:06:54.200



It depends. For a journal or some specific target audience, I would go with whatever convention they use. In many cases, I could see μ being appropriate, but in other cases, they'd probably prefer *10-6.

For a post on the internet, or chat apps, I would avoid "m". If you wrote "I wouldn't want to be there for even 4m seconds", people might understand, but it's far from being conventional.

Senjougahara Hitagi

Posted 2017-07-27T20:31:02.093

Reputation: 1 678