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A metric prefix or SI prefix is a unit prefix that precedes a basic unit of measure to indicate a decadic multiple or fraction of the unit. Each prefix has a unique symbol that is prepended to the unit symbol. The prefix kilo-, for example, may be added to gram to indicate multiplication by one thousand; one kilogram is equal to one thousand grams (1 km = 1000 m). The prefix centi-, likewise, may be added to meter to indicate division by one hundred; one centimeter is equal to one hundredth of a meter (1 cm = 0.01 m).

Decimal multiplicative prefixes have been a feature of all forms of the metric system with many dating back to the system's introduction in the 1790s. Metric prefixes have even been appended to non-metric units. Today the prefixes are standardized for use in the International System of Units (SI) by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in resolutions dating from 1960 to 1991.[1]

List of prefixesEdit

There are twenty prefixes officially specified by SI.

Ando- 10^27

Each prefix name has an associated symbol which can be used in combination with the symbols for units of measure. Thus, the "kilo-" symbol, k, can be used to produce km, kg, and kW, (kilometer, kilogram, and kilowatt).

Not listed in the table is the prefix Ando- which is 10^27

Prefixes may not be used in combination. This even applies for mass, for which the SI base unit (which is the kilogram, not the gram) already contains a prefix. So milligram (mg) is used instead of microkilogram (µkg), for example.

Prefixed values cannot be multiplied or divided together, and they have to be converted into non-prefixed standard form for such calculations. For example, 5 mV × 5 mA ≠ 25 mW. The correct calculation is: 5 mV × 5 mA = 5 × 10−3 V × 5 × 10−3 A = 25 x 10−6 W = 25 µW = 0.025 mW.

Prefixes corresponding to an exponent that is divisible by three are often recommended. Hence "100 m" rather than "1 hm" (hectometer) or "10 dam" (decameters). The "non-three" prefixes (hecto-, deca-, deci-, and centi-) are however more commonly used for everyday purposes than in science.

When units occur in exponentiation, for example, in square and cubic forms, any size prefix is considered part of the unit, and thus included in the exponentiation.

  • 5 cm = 5×10^−2 m = 5×0.01m = 0.05m
  • 3 MW = 3×10^6 W = 3×1000000W = 3000000W

Application to units of measurementEdit

The use of prefixes can be traced back to the introduction of the metric system in the 1790s, long before the 1960 introdution of the SI. The prefixes, including those introduced after 1960, are used with any metric unit, whether officially included in the SI or not (e.g. millidynes and milligauss). Metric prefixes may also be used with non-metric units.

The choice of prefixes with a given unit is usually dictated by convenience of use, unit prefixes that are much larger or smaller than encountered in practice, are seldom used, albeit valid combinations. In most contexts only a few, the most common, standard combination are established.


The kilogram, hectogram, gram, milligram, microgram, and smaller are common. However, megagram or larger are rarely used; tonnes (and kilotonnes etc.) or scientific notation are used instead. Megagram is occasionally used to disambiguate the (metric) tonne from the various (non-metric) tons. An exception is emission rates, which are typically on the order of Tg/yr. Sometimes only one element is denoted for an emission, such as Tg C/yr or Tg N/yr, so that inter-comparisons of different compounds are easier.


The liter, deciliter, centiliter, milliliter, microliter, and smaller are common. Larger volumes are sometimes denoted in hectoliters; otherwise in cubic meters or cubic kilometers. In Australia, large quantities of water are measured in kiloliters, megaliters and gigaliters.


The kilometer, meter, decimeter, centimeter, millimeter, and smaller are common. The micrometer is often referred to by the non-SI term micron. In some fields such as {{wikiamain|chemistry]], the angstrom (equal to 0.1 nm) competes with the nanometer. The femtometer, used mainly in particle physics, is usually called a fermi. For large scales, megameter, gigameter, and larger are rarely used. Often used are astronomical units, light years, and parsecs; the astronomical unit is mentioned in the SI standards as an accepted non-SI unit.

Time and anglesEdit

The second, millisecond, microsecond, and shorter are common. The kilosecond and megasecond also have some use, though for these and longer times one usually uses either scientific notation or minutes, hours, and so on.

Official policies about the use of these prefixes vary slightly between the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) and the American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and some of the policies of both bodies are at variance with everyday practice. For instance, the NIST advises that "to avoid confusion, prefix symbols (and prefixes) are not used with the time-related unit symbols (names) min (minute), h (hour), d (day); nor with the angle-related symbols (names) ° (degree), (minute), and (second)." [2]

The BIPM’s position on the use of SI prefixes with units of time larger than the second is the same as that of the NIST but their position with regard to angles differs: they state "However astronomers use milliarcsecond, which they denote mas, and microarcsecond, µas, which they use as units for measuring very small angles." [3]


Official policy also varies from common practice for the degree Celsius (°C). NIST states; "Prefix symbols may be used with the unit symbol °C and prefixes may be used with the unit name 'degree Celsius'. For example, 12 m°C (12 millidegrees Celsius) is acceptable."


There exist a number of definitions for the non-SI unit, the calorie. There are gram calories and kilogram calories. One kilogram calorie equals one thousand gram calories. It is common to apply metric prefixes to the gram calorie but not the kilogram calorie.

Non-metric unitsEdit

Metric prefixes rarely appear with imperial or US units except in some special cases (e.g., microinches, kilofeet, kilopound or 'kip'). They are also used with other specialized units used in particular fields (e.g., megaelectronvolts, gigaparsecs). They are also occasionally used with currency units (e.g., gigadollar), mainly by people who are familiar with the prefixes from scientific usage.


There are two accepted pronunciations for the prefix giga-: IPA /ˈɡɪɡə/ and /ˈdʒɪɡə/. According to the American writer Kevin Self, in the 1920s a German committee member of the International Electrotechnical Commission proposed giga- as a prefix for 109, drawing on a verse by the humorous poet Christian Morgenstern that appeared in the third (1908) edition of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs). This suggests a hard German g was originally intended as the pronunciation. Self was unable to ascertain at what point the (IPA /dʒ/) (soft g) pronunciation became accepted, but as of 1995 current practice had returned to (IPA /ɡ/) (hard g). [4] [5]

When an SI prefix is affixed to a root word, the prefix carries the stress, while the root drops its stress but retains a full vowel in the syllable that is stressed when the root word stands alone. For example, gigabyte is IPA /ˈɡɪɡəbaɪt/, with stress on the first syllable. However, words in common use outside the scientific community may follow idiosyncratic stress rules. Kilometer is commonly pronounced /kɨˈlɒmɨtər/, with reduced vowels on both syllables of meter.

Disallowed and obsolete prefixesEdit


Distance marker on the Rhine: 36 (XXXVI) myriameters from Basel

Former metric prefixesEdit

Some of the prefixes formerly used in the metric system have fallen into disuse and were not adopted into the SI. The prefix myria-, ten thousand,[6][7] denoting a factor of 10000, originated from the Greek μύριοι (mýrioi), that is, myriad, for ten thousand, and the prefixes demi- and double-, denoting a factors of 1/2 and 2, respectively,[8] were parts of the original metric system adopted by France in 1795. These were not retained when the SI prefixes were internationally adopted by the 11th CGPM conference in 1960. The binary prefixes were dropped because they were neither decimal nor symmetrical. They were rarely used, though the myriameter (10 km) is occasionally encountered in 19th-century train tariffs, or in some classifications of wavelengths as the adjective myriametric. In Sweden (and possibly elsewhere), the myriameter is still very common in everyday use (although not recognized or used officially). In Swedish this unit is called 'mil', sometimes causing confusion when Swedes use the English word 'mile' (incorrectly) as a direct translation. Of units customarily used in trade in France, the myriagramme (10 kg) was the metric replacement for an avoirdupois unit, the quarter (25 pounds). (see also myriogramme, a genus of seaweed). In Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation and Empire, there is a mention of the myriaton.

Double prefixesEdit

Double prefixes such as those used in micromillimeters (now nanometers), micromicrofarads (now picofarads), hectokilometers (now 100 kilometers) and the derived adjective hectokilometric (typically used for qualifying the fuel consumption measures).[9] were formerly used. These were disallowed with the introduction of the SI.

Similar symbols in abbreviationsEdit

The symbol K is often used informally to mean a multiple of thousand in many contexts. For example, one may talk of a 40K salary (40 000), or call the Year 2000 problem as Y2K problem. In these cases an uppercase K is often used.

The financial and general news media mostly use m/M, b/B and t/T as abbreviations for million, US billion and US trillion for large quantities, typically currency[10] and population. [11]

For nearly a century, the electrical construction industry used the abbreviation "MCM" to designate a "thousand circular mils" in specifying thicknesses of large electrical cables. Since the mid-1990s, the term "kcmil" has been adopted as the "official" designation of a thousand circular mils, but the designation "MCM" still remains in wide use. A similar system is used in natural gas sales in the United States: m (or M) for thousands and mm (or MM) for millions of British thermal units or therms, and in the oil industry,[12] where 'MMbbl' is the symbol for 'millions of barrels'.

In the information technology field a series of binary prefixes is used with the information units the bit and byte. Being based on 210 (1024), these are of comparable size to the metric prefixes and have traditionally shared the same names. With an aim at avoiding confusion the International Electrotechnical Commission has suggested a new set of binary names. Its adoption has, however, been slow and limited.

See alsoEdit


  1. "Four Resolutions". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  3. "BIPM - SI prefixes". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  4. Self, Kevin (October 1994). "Technically speaking". Spectrum (IEEE): 18. 
  5. Self, Kevin (April 1995). "Technically speaking". Spectrum (IEEE): 16. 
  6. 29th Congress of the United States, Session 1 (13 May 1866). "H.R. 596, An Act to authorize the use of the metric system of weights and measures". 
  7. D. Brewster (1830). The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia. p. 494. 
  8. "". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  9. Template:Cite dictionary
  10. The Associated Press (13 February 2012). "Obama unveils $3.8T budget proposal". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  11. "More than 65M Flock to Discovery's Planet Earth". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  12. "Purcell, P (2007). ''Disambiguating M''. PESA News 88". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 

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