I was just thinking how the BOM in files makes a lot of sense. I mean the fact that by default numbers grow to the right. And then I started wondering why our numbers grow to the left, if columns of numbers could be compared far easier if the ordering went from the smallest number on the left to the largest number on the right.

I believe that's exactly why the ordering is like that. Just that it was created with Arabic writing in mind, which is from the right to the left.

But then I wondered. Is that accident of history really it or are there amazing advantages of having the biggest number on the left I just cannot think of at the moment?

  • $\begingroup$ The following is more of a comment than an answer as I can't add comments with my phone: This is a question that belongs on Math.SE as there is no historical aspect that you appear to be interested in. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Nov 27 '20 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ Read left-to-right, you start with the most important (largest) figure. We say 'five thousand, four hundred and thirty two' and write it just the same way. Makes sense to me. $\endgroup$ – simon at rcl Nov 27 '20 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Is it the most important figure, though? 8 80 324 3345 The most important figure is actually the length. Without it, it would look like the first 2 are more important than the rest. The leftmost figure only gains importance after ascertaining the overall length of the number. $\endgroup$ – TheCommoner282 Nov 27 '20 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ I've no idea what that number is, unless it's a telephone number. Assuming it is, the ordering of the numbers that make it up (country, area, town, house) also go from largest to smallest, in a sense, though I have no idea whether the telephone companies who originally set the scheme had that in mind. Bear in mind that my telephone number, when I was young, was NEM 3068. $\endgroup$ – simon at rcl Nov 27 '20 at 13:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't have a reference to hand, but from what I understand, the reason the largest position is on the left and the smallest on the right, is because it gives the appropriate verbal priority to the larger quantity. This principle predates Arabic numerals - it can be seen with Roman numerals, for example, or even how five-bar gates accumulate in a tally. Also, whilst integers "grow to the left", fractions also shrink to the right, and once we consider fractional numbers as well as integers, it can quickly be seen that there is no more a good reason why numbers should shrink to the left either. $\endgroup$ – Steve Nov 27 '20 at 22:16

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.