As we’ve discussed on many occasions, learning a language — any language — to fluency is a long, arduous process. Learning how to express everything you want to say with other words, and/or in a different order is not an easy task. What is even more difficult, however, is having to ‘relearn’ what you already know. This is certainly the case with numbers in Spanish: learning how to say the date, tell time, give your phone number to someone, and so forth can actually wind up being more complicated than learning the verbs. Today we’re going to discuss some of the ways in which numbers are expressed and the rules surrounding them.
Cardinal Numbers in Spanish
Most likely you studied elementary Spanish at some point, thus you’re probably familiar with the cardinal numbers (i.e. uno, dos, tres, veintidós, treinta y cinco…). There are a few things to keep in mind, however, when using them.
First of all, remember that uno shortens to un when placed in front of a singular, masculine noun, becoming rather the indefinite article (artículo indeterminado) versus the number ‘one’. This is not much different from English as a native speaker would say, “Yesterday I met a friend for lunch” as opposed to “Yesterday I met one friend for lunch.”
Percentages in Spanish
A similar phenomenon occurs with the number ‘one hundred’. When standing alone, 100 is pronounced as cien. This form is also used when placed before a noun (e.g. cien personas, cien días) or before numbers such as mil, millón, billón, and cuatrillón. In other cases ciento is used: 101, ciento uno; 150, ciento cincuenta; 180, ciento ochenta. The expression cientos de is correct, as well.
When discussing percentages in Spanish, remember that two forms are possible when expressing ‘100%’, which are cien por ciento, and cien por cien. For other percentages, only por ciento is correct. For example, ’75%’ is to be stated as el setenta y cinco por ciento and not el setenta y cinco por cien.
One Thousand Million?
You’ll notice that when speaking English, Spaniards will use the term ‘one thousand million’, a number which obviously does not exist in our language. Of course the numbers in English go hundred, thousand, million, billion, trillion, and so forth. The reason for this speaking error is the fact that ‘billion’ is expressed as mil millones in Spanish; the numbers go cien, mil, millón, mil millones, billón. Thus, in order to say ‘100 billion’ you have to say cien mil millones. Know that this practice is common in virtually all Western European languages, the only exception perhaps being Portuguese, which follows the same system as English.
Commas and periods
Regarding the usage of commas or periods in Spanish to separate numbers, we must keep a few things in mind. Of course in English we typically use commas to separate every three numbers (1,000,000); in Spanish, however, commas are used to indicate decimal places (0,60€). Traditionally numbers in Spanish have been separated by periods (1.000.000), a practice which is now deemed incorrect by the Real Academia Española. Larger numbers are now to be separated by a blank space rather than a decimal or a comma (1 000 000). In the same fashion, four-digit numbers are to be written together (4327 not 4 327). Also, the same practice is to be used when writing years, page numbers, verses, street numbers, zip codes, PO boxes, numbers of legal articles, decrees, or laws.
Not as easy as one, two, three!
Although you’re probably able to count to one hundred in Spanish, we’ve certainly seen that expressing numbers correctly in the language is not as easy as one, two, three. Nonetheless, remember to study and know that the best way to get the numbers down is to practice the language, and what better place to do so than Spain.