I was watching an old film from the early 1940’s which prompted me to so some research. It was on military spending leading up to world war II. Both the film and the books were American (that is to say not British).
In those works, the plural for billion was billions. As in “Germany’s war budget in 1939 was over 50 billions” which seemed very odd to me. Today in the U.S. of course, we’d write that “was over 50 billion.”
I’d like to know how that would be written in Britain today. Did I just find two odd sources, or did the plural or billion change over the last 80 years, and if so, when?
Thanks for supporting my admittedly nitnoid* question.
*(Additionally, I think “nitnoid” should be added to the straight dope dictionary, but I’ll take that up at another time.)
Here’s the Google ngram chart of billion vs. billions. It’s a crude way of looking at the problem, but the differences are dramatic enough to seem meaningful.
Billion and billions stayed fairly close in usage until around 1930. My guess is that billion was an unusual term before that. Even the government rarely had need to refer to billions of dollars and individual firms almost never did. But the Depression forced the government to spend unheard of amounts of money. World War II had numbers far in excess of that.
Some people continued to use billions but the predominant usage shifted over to billion. I don’t know why and a quick search didn’t bring up anything. My guess is that Americans had more need for talking about billions than the Brits so the American-style usage grew more common. I’d be curious is someone can provide a better explanation.
The proper way to say the number 50,000,000,000 has, to my knowledge, always been “fifty billion”.
The way the references were using the term in the OP makes me think that there was an unstated “of dollars” at the end. So imagine that the sentence given read “Germany’s war budget in 1939 was billions of dollars.” Now one asks, now many billions? “Fifty billions.”
I like that ngram, but of course, it doesn’t really address the issue because the question is not how often people referred to “billions” vs. “billion”, but rather how often they referred to “x billions” vs. “x billion”. I suppose one could run the same search using the term “two billions” vs. “two billion”.
I don’t know if this is a good explanation. Look at the chart of million/millions or thousand/thousands, both of which should be used identically as billion/billions.
Nitpick for the OP. “Billion” is not used as a plural in current American English; rather it us simply used as a number followed by the currency. This is similar to the difference between “year” and “years” in “a 12-year-old girl” and “she is 12 years old.” Note that we can say “a 12-year-old” and leave “girl” (or “child”) implied.
I can’t cut and paste, so I’ll paraphrase. “The annuity was 1 million gold marks, and the highest would be 4.2 billions.”
When they included the currency, then the usage was identical to modern usage. When the currency wasn’t named, then “billions” was used. It looks like “millions” was used in this manner in 19th century America.
At some point, this usage stopped.
(It’s way past my bedtime. I caught a number of errors in this post, but I’m sure there are more.)
All those additional charts show the singular passing the plural around 1920.
That may be an artifact of the database but I’d argue that it also catches the same switchover from British styles to American styles at that time. British publishing was more robust and more prestigious in the 19th century. After WWI and certainly by the time of WWII Americanese was dominant in this country’s publishing.
Here’s another example. British style used to-day and to-morrow well into the 20th century. Americans followed that style up to about that same switchover point. Now “to-day” looks like a typo rather than a style choice, but it was once nearly ubiquitous. Same with to-morrow.
I’m seeing on the Wikipedia page for 1,000,000,000 that “billion” has been used in English to describe 1E12 (I would say trillion), particularly in British English. But that’s faded. So it may complicate comparison.
I wouldn’t assume that the transition of “billion” from noun to adjective happened at the same time as that of “million”. It’s at least plausible for me that it happened later for “billion” than for “million” (and both much later than for “thousand”); that is to say that “billion” was still being treated as a noun - a countable unit in its own right - when “million” had already been fully assimilated into our counting system.
In other languages such as French and Spanish, this transition still has not occurred - “million” and “billion” are still countable nouns where “thousand” is an adjective.
“veinticuatro mil” v “doce millones”, “siete millardos”
“dix mille” v “dix millions”, “cinquante-deux millards”
Of course, we still use “billions” as countable nouns. For example, “Billions of dollars are . . .”
What has changed is that the grammatical function of large numbers “millions,” “billions,” etc. has changed in one specific usage, when modifying an implied noun such as “dollars” or “people.”
I would be interested in a trained linguist weighed in, but from my understanding grammatical shifts tend to change in patterns. I don’t see why this shift in grammar would be delayed for one unit simply because it’s larger. What would happen in a situation where there are both millions and billions discussed? Would you expect to see a sentence such as: "The total budgets for the two agencies were 495 million and 5 billions"?
In some rather quick searches online for material published between various decades of the late 19th century and mid 20th century doesn’t seem to show a difference in usage. Obviously this isn’t an extensive study.
I think it’s quite simple. “Billions” is correct if “billion” is the noun. But most of the time these days “billion” is used as an adjective for an (often implied) noun, like “dollars,” so it doesn’t get the plural.
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I do think it’s fairly simple, although usage conventions appear to have changed over time, nor is it limited to “billion”, as we have the same variations in any numerical quantity: “twenty thousand dollars” – singular; vs. “that will cost thousands to repair” – plural. But I don’t think it’s quite the adjective/noun thing, as technically the number words are always nouns, though they can form adjective phrases. It’s the specific vs. non-specific quantity that makes the difference – hundreds of marbles, thousands of people, vs. six hundred marbles, eight thousand people. It seems odd that the plural form was ever used in specifically enumerated quantities.
For a long time, the BBC would have said “fifty thousand millions”. That’s because of the difference between the long scale and the short scale. In long scale, a thousand millions is referred to as a “milliard”, and a “billion” is a million millions (i.e., a thousand milliards). In short scale, a “billion” is a thousand millions, and a million millions would be called a “trillion”.
Originally, the United States used the short scale, and Europe, both continental Europe and the United Kingdom, used the long scale. Gradually, the short scale became more common in the United Kingdom, and in order to avoid confusion between the two usages of the word “billion”, the BBC would say “thousand millions”. Nowadays the short scale usage is the common one also in Britain, and I believe by now even the BBC would use “billion” in the American sense; but continental Europe still mostly uses the long scale. It’s a widely known “false friend” to translate a continental European “billion” as a “billion” in English.
You are correct in describing current usage, where “billion” and “million” follow the pattern of “thousand”. It seems that was not always the case, and so we are wondering when the transition took place.
It’s even more complicated than that. The short scale originated in France, was adopted by the USA, and then, in the mid-20th century, the French reverted to using the long scale, aligning with British usage.
I disagree that the number words are always nouns. The word “thirty” in “thirty cows” is normally considered to be an adjective; when it is an abstract number or in a phrase like “the dirty thirty” it is a noun.
The fact that the word billion was pluralised when referring to a specifically enumerated quantity is interesting, and my interpretation is that the word “billion” was not yet familiar enough to users to be treated as an ordinary counting number.
This simply fits the idea that when they said “4.2 billions,” they were using “billions” as the noun. Now, we assume that there’s an implied noun—“4.2 billion (dollars).” It’s not that the plural of “billions” has changed. It’s that we now assume an implied element in the sentence.
Apologies, TokyoBayer, it wasn’t my intention to ignore your posts. Everything I said about “billion” could apply equally to “million” as you pointed out. I was just focussing on “billion” because that’s the topic of the OP.