If there are particular problems in English or matters you would
like this column to take up, contact Stewart Clark, International
Office, NTH, tel. 73 59 52 45.
ISO 31-0: a standard that may confuse
Decimal point or decimal sign?One of the confusions between English and many other European
languages is that English uses a decimal point, or dot, on the
line to mark the numerator: (6.456). Norwegian and many other
European languages use a comma: (6,456). ISO's Council has now
ruled on this, which settles the matter as far as ISO documents
In documents in the English language, a dot is often used instead of a
comma. If a dot is used, it should be on the line. In accordance
with an ISO Council decision, the decimal sign is a comma in all
ISO documents. ISO 31-0:1992 (E), Note 17. (My stress)
On the other hand, most leading English dictionaries such as the
Oxford English Dictionary or Webster's, like the calculator on
your desk, make it clear that in other British and American
English contexts, the decimal point is the normal decimal marker
in English. This is of course why the dot is called the decimal
point in these dictionaries, rather than decimal sign.
You are likely to confuse your readers if you are tempted to adopt
the ISO standard for non-ISO documents in English. It would be
reasonable to guess that 90% of native English readers have never
heard of the Council decision in ISO 31-0 and using a comma as a
decimal marker in English is probably going to be interpreted as
a thousand marker. If you are quoting a unit price of NOK 6,456
per kilo, this may not result in an order as most English or
American contractors will probably understand this as: six
thousand four hundred and fifty six kroner a kilo.
Thousand markerISO 31-0 also considers the confusion of a price in an English
document written with a thousand marker as it sometimes is in
Norwegian. For example, NOK 145.650. Does this mean NOK 145 or
NOK 145 650? (An English law court would probably decide that the
price is NOK 145, so be careful, this could be a very expensive
mistake.) ISO 31-0 states that such groups of digits are to be
separated by a space, never by comma or point (ISO 31-0, Part 3).
A space is also used in English and Norwegian as a thousand
marker. However, as I just mentioned with the price of NOK 6,456
it is also common in English to use commas to mark thousands.
Multiplication signISO 31-0 indicates that the decimal sign and the multiplication sign
may also be confusing:
If a dot half-high is used as the multiplication sign, a comma
should be used as the decimal sign. If a dot is used as the
decimal sign, a cross should be used as the multiplication
sign. ISO 31-0:1992 (E), Note 18
To sum up
Decimal marker: Engineers and scientists now have two categories of
English texts to consider:
a. A non-ISO English document: Decimal point written
as a dot on the line.
b. An ISO document: Decimal sign written as a comma.
Thousand marker: The ISO 31-0 recommendation of using a space as a thousand marker is a good rule to follow in English. A price of NOK 6 456 per kilo should only have one interpretation.
Multiplication sign: ISO 31-0 accepts both the cross or a half-high dot. Choosing the cross as the multiplication sign in English is one way of avoiding any confusion between the half-high dot and the decimal point.
Tricky Wordswealth generation, added value - These are two possible ways
of translating the Norwegian term verdiskapning. Wealth
generation is probably the best alternative. Added value gives
the idea of an extra dimension (European Added Value), rather the
concept of creating something. Beware of confusion with value
added which sounds like the English sales tax, VAT.
kroner, crowns - Do not translate or talk about kroner as crowns
in English. Crowns are used by monarchs during coronations. Do
not add a plural "s" to kroner. Note that the usual abbreviations
of NOK should be written before an amount: NOK 20 000, but read
after the amount: "20 thousand kroner".
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Updated 06.03.95, Christian Viken, firstname.lastname@example.org