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Metric Prefixes

Abbreviations used to distinguish units of different size.

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CCS Grade 8 Science - Metric Prefixes v.1

Credit: Joseph Wright of Derby
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JosephWright-Alchemist.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What do Latin and Greek have to do with modern science? 

Isn’t it hard enough to learn English terms? For hundreds of years, the languages of the educated class were Latin and Greek. In part, because the literature of philosophy was Latin and Greek. Even the medieval Bibles were written in those two languages – the first English translation was in the late 1380s. Using Latin and Greek allowed scholars from different countries to communicate more easily with one another. Today we still see many Latin phrases in legal communications (“pro bono” meaning to do something “for the good” and not charge legal fees), scientific naming of biological species, and Latin is used for the annual student speech at Harvard University graduations. Not bad for a “dead” language.

Metric Prefixes

Conversions between metric system units are straightforward because the system is based on powers of ten. For example, meters, centimeters, and millimeters are all metric units of length. There are 10 millimeters in 1 centimeter and 100 centimeters in 1 meter. Metric prefixes are used to distinguish between units of different size. These prefixes all derive from either Latin or Greek terms. For example, mega comes from the Greek word \begin{align*}\mu \acute{\varepsilon} \gamma\alpha\varsigma\end{align*}, meaning “great”

The table below lists the most common metric prefixes and their relationship to the central unit that has no prefix. Length is used as an example to demonstrate the relative size of each prefixed unit.

SI Prefixes
Prefix Unit Abbrev. Meaning Example
giga G 1,000,000,000 1 gigameter (Gm) = 109 m
mega M 1,000,000 1 megameter (Mm) = 106 m
kilo k 1000 1 kilometer (km) = 1000 m
hecto h 100 1 hectometer (hm) = 100 m
deka da 10 1 dekameter (dam) = 10 m
1 1 meter (m)
deci d 1/10 1 decimeter (dm) = 0.1 m
centi c 1/100 1 centimeter (cm) = 0.01 m
milli m 1/1000 1 millimeter (mm) = 0.001 m
micro μ 1/1,000,000 1 micrometer (μm) = 10-6 m
nano n 1/1,000,000,000 1 nanometer (nm) = 10-9 m
pico p 1/1,000,000,000,000 1 picometer (pm) = 10-12 m

There are more prefixes - some of them rarely used. Have you ever heard of a zeptometer? You can learn more about prefixes at http://www.essex1.com/people/speer/large.html.

There are a couple of odd little practices with the use of metric abbreviations. Most abbreviations are lower-case. We use “m” for meter and not “M”. However, when it comes to volume, the base unit “liter” is abbreviated as “L” and not “l”. So we would write 3.5 milliliters as 3.5 mL.

As a practical matter, whenever possible you should express the units in a small and manageable number. If you are measuring the weight of a material that weighs 6.5 kg, this is easier that saying it weighs 6500 g or 0.65 dag. All three are correct, but the kg units in this case make for a small and easily managed number. However, if a specific problem needs grams instead of kilograms, go with the grams for consistency.


  • Metric prefixes derive from Latin or Greek terms.
  • The prefixes are used to make the units manageable.


Do the online metric system crossword puzzle at

Click on “metric system” to get to the puzzle


  1. What is the prefix for “thousand”?
  2. What is the prefix for 0.01?
  3. How would you write 500 milliliters?
  4. How many decimeters in one meter?
  5. You have a mass that weighs 1.2 hectograms. How many grams does it weigh?

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  1. [1]^ Credit: Joseph Wright of Derby; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JosephWright-Alchemist.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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