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Large Amounts of Money

Euro bill stacks

With the recently approved relief packages in the EU and the US, we find ourselves talking about millions, billions and trillions a lot lately. If we are going to talk about it in Spanish, we should remember that billions and trillions are not the same as billones and trillones. Here’s how it works:

First of all, we should remember that in several Spanish-speaking countries, people use a point as the thousand separator, as per the central European tradition, and in some countries people use a comma, like in English-speaking countries. The Association of Academies of the Spanish Language currently recommends using a space, so it’s unambiguous. We’ll follow those guidelines in this article.

The main thing with big numbers in Spanish is we don’t change units until we run out of sub-units. Both in English and in Spanish, a million has 6 zeros. Seven zeros is 10 million. Eight zeros is 100 million. But when we add another zero, in English we switch to a billion, while in Spanish we call that a thousand million. We call 10 zeros ten thousand million, and 11 zeros a hundred thousand million. When we get to 12 zeros, we switch to “un billón”, which is a million times a million, or a trillion in English.

If this seems a little confusing, let’s look at it in a table:

English notation

Spanish notation

English name

Spanish name

1,000,000

1 000 000

One million

Un millón

10,000,000

10 000 000

Ten million

Diez millones

100,000,000

100 000 000

A hundred million

Cien millones

1,000,000,000

1 000 000 000

A billion

Mil millones

10,000,000,000

10  000 000 000

Ten billion

Diez mil millones

100,000,000,000

100 000 000 000

A hundred billion

Cien mil millones

1,000,000,000,000

1 000 000 000 000

A trillion

Un billón


But don’t you have trillions in Spanish? We do, but it’s a much bigger number:

Un trillón = 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 (eighteen zeros!). In English, this would be called ‘quintillion’.

The whole point of this is we should be careful when translating numbers from English to Spanish and vice versa. When we read “Senate approves $2 trillion stimulus package” we should be careful not to say “trillones” in Spanish, and say instead “el Senado aprueba un paquete de estímulos de 2 billones de dólares.” In a similar manner, when we read “la Unión Europea prepara un paquete de estímulos de 400 000 millones de Euros” we should translate it as “the European Union prepares a 400-billion-euro stimulus package.”

Here are some headlines you can try to translate in your head:

El Banco de España eleva a 65 725 millones el rescate a la banca y da por perdidos otros 300 millones en Bankia (El Mundo, 20 de noviembre de 2019).

En casi 4 años, la deuda externa aumentó más de 100 000 millones de dólares (Clarín, 19 de diciembre de 2019).

Invertirá Pemex 1.1 billones de pesos en este sexenio (El Universal, 14 de enero de 2020).

Google owner Alphabet becomes trillion-dollar company (The Guardian, January 17, 2020).

How the Fed’s Magic Money Machine Will Turn $454 Billion Into $4 Trillion (The New York Times, March 26, 2020).