What’s wrong with two systems?

Defenders of imperial units sometimes claim that using units from different systems simply contributes to the richness of our language and culture. People use whichever units are appropriate to the context (they argue).

Two examples of this viewpoint were published in the Independent recently. However, the Independent declined to publish a response sent by the Chairman of UKMA. We therefore reproduce the correspondence here together with further comment.

These were the two letters published in the Independent on 6 October:

Happy with our metric mixture

Sir: The miles/kilometres problem has nothing to do with British eccentricity, as suggested by John Shepherd (letter, 3 October). It is simply that measurements are part of language, and language is part of culture. The British have become metrically bilingual, and hurrah for that. It is extraordinary that having different words in different languages is celebrated as central to cultural identity, but having two ways of expressing distance is not.
As a historian, I have no difficulty in working in metric or imperial, whichever is more appropriate; and neither does a young mother who quotes her baby’s weight in pounds, then buys a kilogramme of fish. What’s the problem? Our bilingual success should be celebrated, not denigrated.
Richard Harris
London, NW1

Sir: John Shepherd suggests that metrication doesn’t work for the British because it runs contrary to our eccentricity. Curiously, this echoes the strictures of Napoleon on the metric system when he said, “Nothing is more contrary to the organisation of the mind, memory and imagination”. In fact, metrication should appeal equally to the continental urge to fit everything into grandiose and abstract rational schemes, and to another quality the British also claim, progmatism. Metrication has had a bumpy ride in the UK, and had a cool reception when first tried in France, doubtless because of a more universal human quality: we like what we know. I was educated in metric and have only a shaky grasp of imperial, but tend to use imperial units in conversation. Those metres and grammes sound too clinical and spuriously exact for everyday speech.
Peter Emery
London, SW17

This was the response sent by UKMA Chairman, Robin Paice:

Metric units are a proper system

Richard Harris asks what is the problem with mixing metric with imperial measurement units (letters, 6 October).

The point is that metric units constitute an integrated and consistent system, in which in which the units are interrelated. For example, a litre is a cubic decimetre and for practical purposes a litre of water weighs one kilogram. A hectare is a square 100 m by 100 m, and there are 100 hectares in a square kilometre. The introduction of random legacy units destroys the concept of a system. How would Mr Harris calculate how many litres there are in a refrigerator whose internal dimensions are given in inches? Indeed, how does he calculate his petrol consumption (in the standard measures of mpg or L/100 km) when he buys his petrol in litres but distances are measured in miles?

The use of different units for the same physical phenomenon prevents or inhibits comparisons. How much hotter is New York at 71 degrees Fahrenheit than London at 8 degrees Celsius? Will your car (2.03 m wide according to its handbook) get through a gap signed by the Highway Authority as 6′ 6″?

It is easy for the academically bright to claim that they can work in both metric and imperial, but many people struggle to cope with one system –  let alone two. How many people can calculate the cost of carpeting a room when carpets are priced per square metre but the estate agent gives the dimensions in feet and inches? The failure to standardise on a single system of measurement is probably a factor in the reported low standards of numeracy in the general population.

Further comment

While one should perhaps not make too much of the Independent’s failure to publish a response (nobody has the right to insist that a newspaper should publish a letter), it does illustrate the lack of appreciation by many journalists and others of the genuine problems of the “two systems” approach. They agree it’s a bit of a muddle, but think it’s just a harmless piece of British eccentricity, quite amusing and doesn’t matter very much. Indeed, this attitude prevails at the highest levels: in a letter to Lord Howe in 2004 ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote: “I do not believe it would be right to take further initiatives on metrication merely for the sake of tidiness.”

In a necessarily short letter to a newspaper it is not possible to explain all the reasons why the “two systems” approach is unsustainable, so here are a few of them. Other constructive contributions are of course welcome (for and against).

  • Incomprehension – as people who are familiar with one system do not understand (or refuse or pretend not to understand) information in the other system
  • Conversion errors – e.g. in converting between Celsius and Fahrenheit
  • Spurious accuracy in conversions – e.g. when 300 km/h (approximately) is converted to 186 mph (precisely)
  • Costs and inconvenience of having to calculate both metric and imperial prices (mainly affects small shopkeepers and market traders who calculate prices manually)
  • Accidents resulting from mistakes in conversion
  • Incompatibility of OS maps (metric) and road signs (imperial)
  • Much school teaching is wasted, as children are unable to practise outside school what they learn in the maths and science lesson – esp when they leave school
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15 Responses to What’s wrong with two systems?

  1. Sean Weisthal says:

    I can understand the argument but how do you force people to stop using imperial in day to day speech?

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  2. Dave Brown says:

    Sean Weisthal Says:

    October 15th, 2007 at 14:02
    ...how do you force people to stop using imperial in day to day speech?

    It is not necessary to stop using imperial in every day speech. We still speak of a car "turning on a sixpence", but this did not prevent us from going decimal with our currency. Similarly, we can still say that someone lives "miles away", and then measure the distance as a number of km. Metrication is not about language, it's about measurement.

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  3. Tonik says:

    You don't. You amend any regulations where measurements are concerned to use metric units exclusively, and after a short while people realize that metric units work just as well (or better) in everyday life as Imperial.

    There will be people who refuse to accept a 'foreign measurement system' and make a point of talking pounds and inches for the rest of their life. That's OK. Their children use metric already without giving it a second thought.

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  4. Derek says:

    Britain has made a hash of metrication, just like France two centuries ago. Industries that rely on measurement, from manufacture to shipbuilding, have paid the price. Richard Harris, a historian, tries to spin defeat into victory, but this is no Dunkirk, and the USA will not be riding to our rescue in the near future. Indeed their manufacturing industry has begun the spiral of decline that hit Britain 30 years ago.

    Harris speaks of ‘metrically bilingual’. If leaders of business and industry are to be believed, then 'illiterate' (in metrology) would be more appropriate for many of us, acquainted with two systems but understanding neither.

    But that is measurement, which has been a lost cause for some time, and is proving difficult to turn round. Language is different. English includes words of very diverse origins, from the talents and cubits of the Bible to the gigabytes and nanofilters of today. That is, of course, one of its strengths. And the British and Americans do make the most popular TV programmes in the world!

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  5. Martin Vlietstra says:

    If a country has two languages, then the unscrupulous will often misuse them so as to confuse the public. A typical example was South Africa in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Until the fall of Apartheid, South Africa had two official languages that were equal in status. Until the practice was outlawed in either the 1960’s or 1970’s, lawyers who drew up conditions of sale on the back of an invoice would write the text in both English and Afrikaans and then interlace the two thus:

    This is a typical example of
    Hier het ons ‘n tipiese voorbeeld
    how the two languages would
    van hoe die twee taale in Suid
    be interlaced in South Africa.
    Afrika gemeng was.

    Imagine a page of legalese that was written in this manner. (In later years both official languages would still appear in the conditions of sale, but would be clearly separated)

    When Richard Harris wrote “Our bilingual success should be celebrated, not denigrated� he was overlooking the way in which market traders are trying to do the same with their prices as the South African lawyers were doing with their conditions of sale.

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  6. Phil Hall says:

    Mr Harris (like so many, possibly most people in the UK) is a victim of the farce of dual measures. He cannot see any particular reason why the metric system should be adopted exclusively because it has nothing to offer other than diversity. He welcomes that like a great many people in the UK appear so to do.
    But what if that apparent diversity is really only the aftermath of shallow thinking, mathematical ignorance, political game playing and plain stupidity? Should we be proud and revere that as part of being British?
    The plain fact is that British folk have not adopted the metric system in the way that was initially intended because it has never been given a chance! Metric is a system that captures the whole concept of measurement in a logical and coherent way that is far more grown-up than anything that has gone before. Traditional measures like imperial and the plethora of similar sounding units with totally inconsistent quantative values, have only survived because there are those in society who want the freedom to obsure and confuse for their own personal gain (I'm referring to the liars and tricksters in trade and advertising and the politicians who support them). To them honesty in measurement is inconvenient.
    In such an intellectually muddled environment is it any wonder why people cannot see the simplicity, coherence and honesty of the metric system?

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  7. George Carty says:

    I wonder how many people in Britain think metric but communicate in imperial (because they're scared of being branded "Europhile traitors" if they use metric in public)?

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  8. Ezra Steinberg says:

    This post and the previous one on the new standards from DfT made me think of a refinement of the argument against maintaining dual sets of units (such as Imperial road signs).

    I think even most anti-metric folks in the UK will concede that the UK will convert road signs once the USA starts converting. It would be impractical and foolish-looking to remain the only country in the world (in that scenario) that has Imperial road signs.

    However, the issue in that case has nothing to do with effects on trade. Commerce could still take place normally between a metric USA and a UK with Imperial road signs. Clearly, there are other issues involved that would push the UK in that scenario to convert road signs.

    This is why I have my doubts about the cogency of the argument now being used by the EU to let the UK "off the hook" to set a date for conversion of road signs to metric. There are certainly arguments (which have been made by the UKMA) to convert road signs that have nothing to do with trade between EU countries. What a shame that those arguments have been ignored in order to avoid (I believe) a political "dust up" between Brussels and London.

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  9. Sean Weisthal says:

    "I wonder how many people in Britain think metric but communicate in imperial (because they’re scared of being branded “Europhile traitors� if they use metric in public)? "

    That's a simple one to answer.

    Just ast a British person how far he lives from where he works and say that you are interested to know the distance in kilometres.

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  10. George Carty says:

    "Just ask a British person how far he lives from where he works and say that you are interested to know the distance in kilometres."

    I think very few Brits think metric in terms of distances (even if they do in other areas). Brits measure distances in miles because that's what's on the signs...

    [This is probably true of miles (though not of metres, which are virtually interchangeable with yards). Presumably, the corollary is that if the signs were metric, people would soon adapt and start thinking in kilometres. - Editor]

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  11. David says:

    The question of distance is a messy one. Indeed, for longer distances, most people will respond in miles - because that is what the road signs say. But if you ask somebody how far it is to somewhere close by in walking distance (eg, the nearest cash machine, pub or post office, perhaps), you will find as many people respond "[so many] hundred metres away" as "[so many] hundred yards". And it will only be the older people who reply in yards.

    The fact is that we use metric in much of our daily lives, from buying food and drink in kilograms or litres to measuring furniture in centimetres, and it is only in a few areas where imperial measurements still remain to the forefront. This does not make us 'bilingual', it merely means we have to squeeze in a half-understanding of some imperial measures into an otherwise metric world.

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  12. Roddy Urquhart says:

    Most people over 45 in the will remember our awful Roman-style £sd currency that we used until 1971. Those over 50 will certainly have been taught pretty awful calculations in both "old money" and imperial units.

    While the government of the day feared a total meltdown in popular confidence in our currency; the Treasury pushed on with an efficient campaign to inform the public.

    Anybody who managed to adopt decimal currency ought to be able to adopt metric units; that happened in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. However, the pussyfooting approach of successive governments over the last 30 years has wasted the opportunity for change and squandered education.

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  13. Martin Vlietstra says:

    I was living in South Africa when they introduced decimal coinage (1961) and I made a visit to the UK in 1972 (a year after the UK introduced decimal coinage). There were a number of differences between the two programs:

    The South African program chose to have an easy conversion for the shilling (which became 10c) while the UK chose to retain the pound at the cost of a slightly awkward conversion for the shilling (which became 5p). This was much more user-friendly for the man-in-the-street. All the Commonwealth countries (apart from the United Kingdom) that adopted decimal coinage at the same time followed the South African model.

    The South African Government took a very strong line on profiteering during the decimalisation changeover. The new coins and stamps were almost identical to the old while a rigid control was made on prices.

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  14. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Much of the resistance to change, as has been said many times before, is the lack of familiarity in metric numbers. Take fuel consumption. Most people "know" that 40 mpg is very good, 30 mpg is not bad (depending on your car), and that 20 mpg puts you firmly in gas-guzzling territory.

    But what if you knew only metric? Then you would know those same (approximately) fuel consumption figures as 6 L/100 km, 9 L/100 km, and 12 L/100 km. Remember these, and any other fuel consumption figure can be related to it. European manufacturers are striving for a '3 litre car' - not 3 L in engine size, but fuel economy of 3 L/100 km. Compare that to the fuel figures above, and you can see it's very economcal. But it all comes down to getting a feel for the numbers. Do that, and you don't need imperial at all.

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  15. brian Capon says:

    The real truth of the matter is that we will always do what the Americans do, won't we? As said before, when America goes metric we will find all the reasons necessary to go metric ourselves. This despite over 50 percent of our trade is with EU countries.

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