Hold on, that’s the same in all languages… isn’t it?

Well, not always. Conventions change: the advent of computing brought the asterisk for multiplication and the slash for division, for instance, neither of which were around when I was a kid, and the mid-height decimal point dropped onto the line. And there are different conventions in different languages too.

  • English doesn’t use a colon to denote division. Ratios and map scales are OK, but not the basic division operation. Use a slash if you have to or the obelus (division sign) ÷ if possible
  • using “+/+” to indicate that a series of numbers or a table column should be summed or “-/-” to show that they should all be subtracted from the first one (I think… never quite got the hang of that one myself) aren’t an English notation
  • using “+/-” or the plus-minus sign ± to mean “approximately” is a Dutch trick. English puts it between two numbers, defining a range. So 13±2 means anything from 11 to 15 (or sometimes more mathematically 13 with a standard deviation of two), and ±13 doesn’t really mean anything.

But yes, the actual arithmetic itself is the same for everyone. Fortunately!

Prevalence: low. Tables in financial reports can be a good source of confusion.
Frequency: medium. The colon not being used for division in English is one you need to be aware of.
Native: no. As I said in the preamble, conventions do change over time. But these specific ones are not English.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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