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Metric (SI) Prefixes

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A benefit of the SI (International System of Units) is that written technical information is effectively communicated, transcending the variations of language – including spelling and pronunciation. Values of quantities are expressed using Arabic symbols for numbers paired with a unit symbol, often with a prefix symbol that modifies unit magnitude.

In the SI, designations of multiples and subdivision of any unit may be arrived at by combining with the name of the unit the prefixes deka, hecto, and kilo meaning, respectively, 10, 100, and 1000, and deci, centi, and milli, meaning, respectively, one-tenth, one-hundredth, and one-thousandth. In certain cases, particularly in scientific usage, it becomes convenient to provide for multiples larger than 1000 and for subdivisions smaller than one-thousandth. The following table of 24 SI prefixes ranging from 1030 to 10−30 are currently recognized for use.

Prefixes
Purpose Name Symbol Factor Name


larger quantities
or whole units
quetta Q 1030 nonillion
ronna R 1027 octillion
yotta Y 1024 septillion
zetta Z 1021 sextillion
exa E 1018 quintillion
peta P 1015 quadrillion
tera
Example: terahertz
T 1012 trillion
giga
Example: gigawatt
G 109 billion
mega M 106 million
kilo
Example: kiloliter
k 103 thousand
hecto
Example: hectare
h 102 hundred
deka
Example: dekameter
da 101 ten
      100 one
smaller quantities
or sub units
deci
Example: decimeter
d 10-1 tenth
centi
Example: centigram
c 10-2 hundredth
milli
Example: milliliter
m 10-3 thousandth
micro
Example: microgram
μ 10-6 millionth
nano
Example: nanometer
n 10-9 billionth
pico
Example: picogram
p 10-12 trillionth
femto
Example: femtosecond
f 10-15 quadrillionth
atto a 10-18 quintillionth
zepto
Example: zeptosecond
z 10-21 sextillionth
yocto
Example: yoctosecond
y 10-24 septillionth
ronto r 10-27 octillionth
quecto q 10-30 nonillionth


The simplified table below shows common metric prefixes and the relationship with their place values. Note that the recommended decimal sign or marker for use in the United States is the dot on the line, which is used to separate whole numbers from parts. Use a leading zero for numbers less than one. The convention of writing a zero before the decimal point is used to ensure that the quantity is appropriately interpreted.

Whole Units Decimal Units
thousands hundreds tens SI unit* tenths hundredths thousandths
1000 100 10 1 0.1 0.01 0.001
kilo- hecto- deka- meter
gram
liter
deci- centi- milli

   * SI base or derived units with special names may be used


Prefix Progress. Since the first eight prefixes were adopted by the CGPM in 1889, there have been five subsequent prefix expansions. This chronological summary highlights these developments.    

 Year

Description

Prefix Total

1795

Eight original SI prefixes were officially adopted: deca, hecto, kilo, myria, deci, centi, milli, and myrio, derived from Greek and Latin numbers. Initially, all prefixes were represented by lowercase symbols.

8

1889

The first General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) approves the 8 prefixes for use.

8

1960

Two prefixes were made obsolete:  myria and myrio. Six prefixes were added. Three for forming multiples:  mega, giga, and tera.  Three for forming submultiples: micro, nano, and pico.

12

1964

Two prefixes for forming submultiples were added:  femto and atto.  This created an imbalanced situation, where there were more prefixes for small quantities.

14

1975

Two prefixes for forming multiples were added:  peta and exa.

16

1991

Four prefixes were added. Two for forming multiples:  zetta and yotta.  Two for forming submultiples: zepto and yocto.

20

2022

Four prefixes were added.  Two for forming multiples:  ronna and quetta.  Two forming submultiples:  ronto and quecto.

24

Capitalization. SI prefixes for submultiples (smaller quantities or sub units) are formatted with all lowercase symbols while prefixes for multiples (larger quantities or whole units) use uppercase symbols with the exception of three: kilo (k), hecto (h) and deka (da). 

Historical Exception. For historical reasons, the name "kilogram" for the SI base unit of mass contains the name "kilo," the SI prefix for 103. Thus, because compound prefixes are unacceptable, symbols for decimal multiples and submultiples of the unit of mass are formed by attaching SI prefix symbols to g (gram). The names of such multiples and submultiples are formed by attaching SI prefix names to the name "gram." Example: 1 mg, NOT 1 μkg (1 microkilogram).

Spelling. It’s important to note that spelling in NIST publications are made in accordance with the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual, which follows American English writing practices found in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. For example, the prefix deka is used (American English spelling) but not deca (British English). Webster’s pronunciation guidance reflects contemporary American English.

Writing. Guidance is provided to aid general public use of the metric system. Writing with Metric Units discusses common best practices for effectively using SI practices in written communications and is based on NIST LC 1137, Metric Style Guide for the News Media.

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Credit: Pixabay

FAQ: How do I pronounce the prefix giga? The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary provides two common pronunciations for the scientific term gigawatt. The soft “g” pronunciation is listed first, followed by the hard "g" pronunciation. Prefix Etymology resources list both soft and hard “g” pronunciations. The official language of the BIPM SI Brochure is French and includes an English translation but provides no pronunciation guidance.

 

 

Colorful chart explaining the 7 base units of the SI (International System of Units) and prefix symbols, featuring the Measurement League: Guardians of the SI
Credit: NIST

NIST SI Measurement System Chart (2021) is a colorful chart explaining the 7 base units of the SI, prefix symbols, and features the Measurement League: Guardians of the SI. SI Prefix symbols are featured in the chart and used to represent smaller or larger units by factors that are powers of 10. Submit hard copy requests to TheSI [at] nist.gov. Chart dimensions: 216 mm by 279 mm (8.5 in by 11 in).

Resources

 

Contacts

Created January 13, 2010, Updated December 21, 2022