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Place Value: Decimal Numbers (page 3 of 3)

Sections: Concepts, Whole-number place values, Decimal place values

Returning to our fingers-and-marbles model, let's imagine that we're counting packs of candy bars. Each pack contains ten bars, and each bar is formed to break into ten pieces. How would we count single bars, in our fingers-and-marbles model?

At each step going to the left, our units grew by a factor of 10. We started with 1s (fingers), and went to 10s ("all-my-fingers") and then 100s (ten times of "all-my-fingers"). Going off to the right, into smaller-than-one units, we divide by 10.

So let's say we counted up thirteen packs and two single bars. Each pack is ten bars, so two single bars are two parts of our "unit" (that is, two parts out of ten of what we're calling "1"). Using marbles, this time to the right of our hands, to indicate "parts of a pack", we'd count like this:

left to right: one marble, then three fingers, then two more marbles

The picture above shows "ten packs, plus another three packs, plus two parts of a pack", or 10 + 3 + 2/10. When writing this out in numbers, we could use a line to divide between the whole numbers (in this case, the one 10 and the three 1s) and the parts (in this case, the two 1/10s):

    10 + 3 + 2/10 = 13|2

...but the vertical dividing line looks too much like the digit "1", so instead, let's use a dot:

    10 + 3 + 2/10 = 13.2

This dot is called the "decimal point". The number above can be read in either of two ways: "thirteen point two" or "thirteen and two tenths". In this case, since we're counting packs of candy bars, the number stands for "thirteen and two tenths packs of candy bars".

Now let's say we got hungry and ate three pieces of one of the loose bars. One bar is one-tenth of a pack, and the seven remaining pieces are seven-tenths of a bar, so those pieces are (1/10)×(7/10) = 7/100 of a pack. So, after snacking, we have 10 + 3 + 1/10 + 7/100 = 13.17 packs of candy bars.

Just as we can count bigger and bigger numbers by using digits further and further to the left, so also we can count smaller and smaller numbers by using digits further and further to the right. Each place further to the right counts pieces 1/10 as big as the previous step, and the names are similar to the whole-number names: Copyright © Elizabeth Stapel 2013 All Rights Reserved

big units




small units

















 ten thousands


 ten thousandths

0.000 1  


 hundred thousands


 hundred thousandths

0.000 01  

When the numbers get really small (that is, really far to the right of the dot), the names for those numbers get really big, so people usually switch to the "point" way of reading the numbers; it's easier.




When we're working with numbers smaller than the whole numbers, so we're working with numbers with the "dot" (called a "decimal point"), we have to use zeroes as placeholders after the decimal point. For instance, the fraction "7/100" is written in decimal form as "0.07". If we don't include that zero between the dot and the 7, we'd be saying "7/10", which isn't what we mean. Also, for however many digits we have to the right of the decimal point, that's how many "decimal places" we have.

Take a close look at the correspondence between the numbers of zeroes in the "big units" expressions in the table above and the numbers of decimal places in the "small units" expressions. If you count them up, you'll see that they match. For instance, one thousand has three zeroes, and one thousandth has three decimal places.

To figure out what "place" we're at when looking at a decimal-places number, we count up the digits after the decimal point. However many decimal places we have, that's the number of zeroes for the number matching the "place" we're at. For instance, the number 83.295 has three digits after the decimal place (the digits 2, 9, and 5), so the number has three decimal places. The number with "1" followed by three zeroes is 1,000: one thousand. That means that "83.295" is the number "eighty-three and two hundred ninety-five thousandths".

Remember: You should use "and" only between the whole-number part of a number and the decimal-places part. The number "108", for instance, is "one hundred eight", not "one hundred 'and' eight".

  • Express "47.3692" (a) in expanded notation and (b) in words.
  • (a) In expanded notation, I need to write each "place" out separately:

      40 + 7 + 0.3 + 0.06 + 0.009 + 0.0002

    (b) To write this out in words, I first need to figure out what kind of number I'm working with. There are four decimal places (3, 6, 9, and 2). The number 1 followed by four zeroes is 10,000 (ten thousand), so the decimal-places part refers to 1/10,000 (ten thousandths). In words, this is:

      forty-seven and three thousand, six hundred ninety-two ten thousandths

Note that an "and" went between the whole-number part (being the 47) and the decimal-places portion (being the 3692). This is the only proper place for an "and" within a number name.

  • Given the number 16.875, state (a) the value of the 5 and (b) the digit in the tenths place.
  • a) The 5 is three decimal places to the right of the decimal point. The number 1 followed by three zeroes is 1,000, so the 5 is in the thousandths place.

    b) Ten is a 1 followed by one zero, so tenths is one decimal place to the right of the decimal point. Then the digit in the tenths place is the 8.

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Cite this article as:

Stapel, Elizabeth. "Place Value: Decimal Numbers." Purplemath. Available from Accessed



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