A sticky problem with symbols

As a result of having to use two systems of measurement, many in the UK are familiar with neither. Philip Bladon, a regular contributor to MetricViews, draws our attention to yet another example.

Metric owes some of its success to its comprehensive system of symbols to denote units of measurement. This topic was discussed some time ago in a MetricViews article by Martin Vlietstra:

http://www.metricviews.org.uk/2007/07/26/metric-symbols-universal/

We in the UK use symbols for many purposes without a second thought, for example on the keys on our mobile phones. But it seems that the use of abbreviations in measurement is so deeply ingrained, going back in part to the Roman occupation, that the idea of symbols for measurements is something that many in Britain can not grasp.

Philip Bladon writes (and apologies from MetricViews for missing Pancake Day on 24 February):

Lyle’s Golden Syrup
Special Edition Anniversary Tin
PLEASING ON PANCAKES

Tate & Lyle has produced special tins for its Golden Syrup to celebrate its 125th birthday.

You might think that an extra special effort would have been made to ensure that all the things appearing on the tin would be correct.

The T&L website shows the front of the special tins:

http://www.lylesgoldensyrup.com/LylesGoldenSyrup/WhatsNew/default.htm#happylyle

On the back of a tin there’s the inkorrect symbol Kj.

Tate & Lyle have been contacted about this error.  A spokesperson said seven designs were produced and six have been used.

The correct symbol for the unit kilojoule is kJ.

http://www.simetricmatters.com/

And see: A Dictionary Of International Units  Metric-Matters: Names and Symbols


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28 Responses to A sticky problem with symbols

  1. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I recently did a bit of an inventory of some of the products that I have currently in my house. I posted this on the USMA blog to show just how metric Britain is (and it is VERY metric - I really had to hunt for ANY items that had an imperial supplementary marking, and found just 4 items so marked, only one of which was a rational imperial measure).

    But one thing was noticeable - at least half of the almost 60 prodcuts I listed had an error in their use of SI. Most errors were simply the lack of a space between quantity and unit, but some were more serious (e.g. some wood trim labelled 15mm x 45mm x 2.1M). It seems to me that, while we must applaud the high degree of SI in the things we buy, far too many manufacturers and packagers still lack some basic knowledge of just how metric works.

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  2. Shaun says:

    Talking about symbols, the letters LB are not used to spell the word pound and it did confuse me before I knew what it ment. Also, I saw an incorrect symbol on the back of a mini-bus. The sticker read 'this vehicle is limited to 62MPH (100KPH)'. The incorrect symbol was used on something as official as a vehicle marking (the correct symbol for kilometres per hour is km/h as seen on Irish speed limit signs).

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  3. lee kelly says:

    It's not just packaging thats confusing ? we live in a strange country, we have hight restrictions in metres but distances in yards ? use litres for petrol but drive in mph, lorrys are restricted to x-amount km/h yet on the outside the labels say restricted to x-amount mph, and we tell temperatures in celcius in winter but use fahrenheit in summer, unless it's raining or below 21 degrees celcius ? we weigh babies in lbs & ozs but we use kgs & grammes for body mass index ? still were half way there I just hope we dont have to wait another 44 years ?

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  4. David Brown says:

    Lyles pride themselves on the fact that the golden syrup tin has not changed since they started manufacturing it. It still holds only 454 g of product. Clearly this used to be one pound, but they no longer mark that quantity on the tin. So we have what looks at first glance to be a half kilogram tin, but turns out to be 46 grams short. Isn't it about time Lyles (and many other manufacturers) came clean and gave us rational metric sizes, instead of these nonsensical imperial hang-overs?

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  5. 8 April 2009

    Why are some food manufacturers, major supermarkets, and leading stores like B&Q still incapable of always displaying correct symbols?

    On the following "FARM FOODS" frozen products:
    Cut Leeks 1 kg and Minted Peas 750 g
    Instead of the correct symbol "kJ", there's the WRONG symbol "kj".

    And in a store today I saw the following WRONG symbols for the kilogram:
    "KG", "KG", "Kg", "Kgs", "kgs", "kgm", "kgms". (The correct symbol is "kg").

    Please don't attempt to use plurals.
    '3 ms' means three milliseconds, not three metres.
    (If '3 ms' is on a road sign, you could ask the Highway's Agency what it means).

    Philip http://www.simetricmatters.com

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  6. Mike Dimmick says:

    It looks like BT may have recorded the depth of one of their tunnels incorrectly. There's a big outage in East London as Thames Water have tunnelled through some of BT's optic fibre. BT are claiming a depth of 32 metres, Telstra say 34 feet, Thames Water say they were digging at 10 metres.

    This is engineering - everything's supposed to be in metres!

    Story from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/08/bt_thames_water/

    Details on the damage: http://noc.enta.net/2009/04/outage-framestream-leased-lines/#comments

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  7. Richard Birkby says:

    The issue is of importance, but we mustn't put the cart before the horse. Once a metric changeover is fully completed familiarity will create less tolerance of inaccuracies.

    As for non-rational pack sizes there is no need to be over-concerned, since as was mentioned in the previous discussion, if unit pricing is prominent and not craftily hidden, there is nothing to fear and much to gain from complete and exclusive metrication, no matter what the weight or volume of the final package.

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  8. lee kelly says:

    Can somebody please expain to me why the highways agency use distance markers saying "m" instead of the correct term which should be "mi"? If anyone coming from a metric country or even the US, they would think we used metres not miles. This has always puzzled me as I drive I have to remind myself they mean miles not metres. Is this a way of saving money when we do change over to km/h & metres?

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  9. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Lee Kelly asked why the highway agency uses "m" instead of "mi" for miles?

    Accoding to EU directive 80/181/EEC and also a now depricated part of ISO 31, the highway agency should be using "mile" (and not "mi" as suggested by Lee).

    However it seems that the writers of the TSRGD 2002 which requires the use of "m" rather than "mile" had a cavalier disregard of their legal obligations under the EU directive. Although miles, yards, feet and inches are permitted on UK road signs, the directive states that the legal symbols shall be "mile", "yd", "ft" and "in" respectively (in accordance with ISO 31 as it was at the time). However, the government have seen fit to hijack the symbol "m" for "miles", (it is reserved for metres) and to hijack the single and double apostrophes for feet and inches even though they have been reserved for minutes and seconds of arc respectively.

    Furthermore, even though the TSRGD 2002 permits the use of "t" for tonnes, I have yet to see it in use in the UK - all new signs still use "T", the symbol for the tesla.

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  10. Another inkorrect symbol:

    "Rocky" a mightier biscuit produced by Fox's Biscuits, West Yorkshire, UK

    See link: http://www.foxs-biscuits.co.uk/
    Biscuit range and under "Nutritional Information"

    The energy unit symbol shown on the website and on the wrapper is wrong "KJ"
    The company have been contacted again: careline@foxs-biscuits.co.uk

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  11. Ezra Steinberg says:

    A email correspondent whom I read wrote recently:

    "On 1/1/2010, Imperial loses its status as a "supplementary indication".. IMO, that doesn't mean that it is forbidden from appearing (as long as the metric measure is primary)"

    Can someone clarify what is meant by Imperial losing its status as a supplementary indication? Is this in fact accurate (and in what sense)?

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  12. J Gabrielczyk says:

    People use what they feel comfortable with and I suggest that the vast majority of the population of this country consider that abbreviations for weights and measures are there to serve them, not the other way round, so they will continue to comfortably interchange upper and lower case letters in descriptions.

    It is distinctly unpalatable to have something forced down one's throat "for one's own good". While it is most certainly easier to make calculations using a decimal system and the metre and litre are useful, centimetres and centilitres are awkward as they end up being stated in high numbers in to describe orders of length and volume frequently used in day-to-day life.

    Of course it takes time to get used to anything new and on the continent people have no problem at all in buying in decagrammes, but to my mind the imperial ounce has a 'human' feel to it. It is a very useful unit, as is the pound and the foot. I can visualise an area in acres far better than one in ares, not because I am more used to acres, but because it is the area one man can plough in a day (assuming he and his horse are up to it).

    There is no stopping metrication but there is no need to make imperial measures illegal. The concept of such action is actually quite bizarre.

    If people can put the name of their product on packaging why shouldn't they put an imperial measure on it too? If the metric description uses an upper case character instead of a lower case one, what is the problem? People will still understand.

    ' and " represent feet/minutes of arc and inches/seconds of arc. Potential confusion is dispelled by context, else we would need to ban words like the word "jack" which have more than one meaning.

    A far, far greater problem lies in integration of the European Community's symbol for the decimal notation.

    Imperial measures will no longer lose their status as supplementary indication on 1/1/2010 - which personally I find to be a good thing.

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  13. Philip says:

    Tesco are still getting it wrong.

    In 2011 I wrote to Tesco's new Chief Executive, Philip Clarke making yet another attempt to get the company's own labels to always show the correct symbol for the kilogram. I attached to my letter examples of labels where the wrong symbol 'Kg' was next to 'kg'. I also pointed out that the response received from Customer Service at the Redditch store wasn't very helpful, the initial reaction was " 'Kg' is correct ".
    I received a formal reply from Frances Hickling (Executive Response Manager) stating 'I am confident that Tesco own-brand product labels use the correct SI units'.
    She failed to say 'correct SI unit symbols'.

    Today when I visited the Redditch store I saw this problem still exists.
    Look at the labels printed out and fixed on small blocks of cheese.
    One example is: Blue Stilton (bar code: 0 212299 001419)
    Unit price symbol '£/kg' and Actual Weight '0.218 Kg'.

    I spoke to a manager in the store named Marc, he also thought the correct symbol was 'Kg'. I challenged him to try and get this very long standing problem fixed.

    The next time you are in Tesco look carefully at the labels that are printed out; you'll probably see 'Kg' and 'kg' in different places on the label.

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  14. michduncg says:

    I'm just happy that they are using a metric measurement anyway. I am also surprised (but impressed) that Tesco official used the wording SI. It never occurs to me to, and I consider myself a metric advocate! Ref the labels: they will be set up on a system at Cheshunt HQ which individual branches will not be able to alter.

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  15. John Steele says:

    Do your labelling laws not specify the required form of symbols (for metric) and abbreviations (for supplemental Imperial)? US law usually requires dual, but the forms are specified with "these and no other" language including case, periods, and plurals. Quoting from text of the law on the USMA site:
    § 500.22 Abbreviations.

    The following abbreviations and none other may be employed in the required net quantity declaration:
    Inch--in.
    Feet or foot--ft.
    Fluid--fl.
    Liquid--liq.
    Ounce--oz.
    Gallon--gal.
    Pint--pt.
    Pound--lb.
    Quart--qt.
    Square--sq.
    Weight--wt.
    Yard--yd.
    Avoirdupois--avdp.
    Cubic--cu.

    Note: Periods and plural forms shall be optional.

    § 500.23 Expression of net quantity of contents in SI Metric units.

    (a) The selected multiple or submultiple prefixes for SI metric units shall result in numerical values between 1 and 1000, except that centimeters or millimeters may be used where a length declaration is less than 100 centimeters. For example, "1.96 kg" instead of "1960 g" and "750 mL" instead of "0.75 L".

    (b) The following symbols for SI metric units and none others may be employed in the required net quantity declaration:

    centimeter--cm
    cubic centimeter--cm³
    cubic decimeter--dm³
    meter--m
    milligram--mg
    liter--L or l
    milliliter--mL or ml
    square decimeter--dm²
    cubic meter--m³
    kilogram--kg
    micrometer--µm
    gram--g
    millimeter--mm
    square meter--m²
    square centimeter--cm³

    Note: Symbols, except for liter, are not capitalized. Periods should not be used after the symbol. Symbols are always written in the singular form.
    (end of quote)

    (The wording is a little clumsy as the original law only covered US Customary, it was amended to require dual in 1992; however, it clearly distinguishes between Customary abbreviations and metric (SI) symbols, and differences in their respective rules.)

    This does not completely prevent mistakes, but it provides a quotable law which makes it difficult for a noncompliant manufacturer to claim there is no error.

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  16. Mary says:

    John's comment above:
    A query, what about enforcement in the USA?
    If a label or packaging is wrong, even slightly wrong, whose job is it to enforce the law for this kind of thing?
    If 'ML' is shown on a small container to indicate the volume of contents in millilitres (NOT megalitres) would any action be taken to ensure the mistake is corrected to show 'mL' or 'ml'?

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  17. John Steele says:

    @Mary,

    I'm not 100% sure. I think NIST leaves enforcement to state weights and measure inspectors. However, consumers are free to write in, quote the law, and complain. The manufacturer has little ground to stand on and will usually change, perhaps not promptly, but eventually. I have availed myself of this option a few times. At least on enforcement being at the state level (for retail), I think this would be similar to your local TSOs. Federal inspection would be at the manufacturer's or distributor's location, not retail.

    I will say most enforcement is aimed at actual short measure and deceptive practices, not minor technical issues. At most, it would be a warning, and probably not even that for errors that are just stupid, not deceptive. (it's wrong, but what else could Kgs. mean in context of net contents, Kelvin-gram-seconds are just not a logical unit of commerce.)

    If the law is precise, most manufacturers will read it and be careful to comply. NIST did a study in support of permissive-metric-only and found quite a number of counterexamples, but they were mostly imports, and NIST was wrong on some. They counted as (illegal) metric-only net contents some examples where the metric was descriptive, and the net contents was a count (6 mm beads, pens with 0.5 mm tip, etc). I'm sure there was no enforcement in those cases, as their point was that a metric-only label would not cause the world to end.

    The most common errors I see in the US are:
    *No space between number and unit. When the unit is grams, this may be more common than doing it correctly based on examples in my cupboard.
    *Decimal dust: For the metric, only three significant figures are allowed. The rules for the Customary are a bit different. Several manufacturers get confused by the rules conflict and express the metric to 4 significant figures.
    *Contrast: In some cases, color contrast is inadequate at the minimum font size (vs label size). This is usually a white character with thin black outline on a light background. Black at the same size would be readable. I’m not sure if they are trying to be too “pretty” or to obfuscate.

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  18. Philip says:

    More from Tesco:
    Tesco isn't bothered by using wrong and inaccurate SI symbols.
    Tesco isn't interested in correcting these mistakes.
    In a letter dated 5 Sept 2012 from the Chief Executive's Office, Frances Hickling states:
    "As advised in my previous correspondence, we understand the importance of accurate quantity unit descriptions especially for on-pack statements which are legally required and form part of our contract with the customer.
    However, whilst we appreciate that in some instances a capital letter may be used incorrectly, we do not believe our customers could ever be misled. Therefore, we do not feel it would be necessary to adjust our product labels."

    Marc, the Tesco manager mentioned above, and some other Tesco staff are misled in thinking that the correct symbol for the kilogram is 'Kg'.

    I wonder how many others, for example children, are misled when they see inKorrect symbols like: 'Kg', 'Km', 'KJ', and 'KW'.

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  19. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Tesco sounds pretty backwards to me!

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  20. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    Guy, you surely realise that you're swimming against the tide in trying to get Luddite UK to fully convert to metric measurements, or even eliminate abbreviation errors. Therefore, rather than keep banging your head against a wall, relocate to a country/region where metrication has been full implemented. Spoilt for choice I venture to suggest. However, it's doubtful that you will find such a region without a few exceptions (as example, tyre sizes), but at least it will not be the Imperial-metric mishmash you face at present.
    Sounds extreme I realise, but two incompatible measurements systems in use concurrently is symptomatic of the muddled, backward thinking that prevails in today's UK. You may not be quite ready to fly the coop, however I suggest the current measurement mishmash is worthy of a Top 10 Ranking on your, "Emigrate, reasons to" list.
    Jack, Japan Alps

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  21. BrianAC says:

    @Jackthesmilingblack
    Yes, I agree with this in the most part. Having travelled the world for over 40 years I know this is not the place I want to be, but it is home to me and my family, and now I get a pension instead of paying tax it kind of feels a bit better. I returned from France when they (or I began noticing) started using 'pouces' for TV screen sizes, somehow that really got at me, my favourite hate.
    Don't be put off though, the hope is one day that tide may turn or the wall may just come tumbling down. We have to keep at it even if only to know we have some like minded sensible people out there!
    Of course it will have to change at some point, I just hoped it would be sooner rather than later.
    Happy New Year, 2013 may be the year.

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  22. Peter says:

    Congratulations to Birmingham Trading Standards with their case:
    ‘Retail giant, Tesco Stores Limited, has been fined £300,000 following a prosecution by Birmingham City Council about misleading the public on a ‘half price’ offer regarding punnets of strawberries’; LINK:
    http://birminghamnewsroom.com/2013/08/tesco-fined-300k-for-strawberry-offer/

    Now consider: [Comment above 2012-09-08]
    Tesco still refuses to get all its symbols correct; see:
    http://metricviews.org.uk/2009/04/metric-abbreviations-abuse/
    Scroll down to: Comments 2012-09-08

    A member of the public asked Tesco to correct its ‘Kg’ labelling mistake, this request has been unsuccessful. Perhaps now is a good time to alert Birmingham Trading Standards department about this particular matter. Birmingham’s TS was not afraid to ‘take on the giant’.

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  23. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    If/when you want to catch out those Liberal Arts Muppets, ask them to convert 10 square kilometres into square miles.

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  24. Mary says:

    Royal Mail's inkorrect symbol on printed stamps!

    When a parcel is taken to a UK Post Office, there may be a self service facility where, after the item has been weighed, and the postage paid, then a stamp is printed out.
    The stamp is then stuck on the parcel.

    This stamp (sorry no image is available) has an inkorrect symbol on it (Kg).
    I complained at my local Post Office; I'll also send a complaint to Royal Mail Customer Services.

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  25. Mary says:

    This is the reply from Royal Mail.
    ++++++++
    From: customerservice@your.royalmail.com
    Subject: RE: COMPLAINT/Error on printed stamps
    Thanks for contacting Royal Mail.
    I’m sorry I’m unable to provide assistance with your enquiry as it relates to Post Office®.
    All enquiries and complaints relating to their services are handled by them.
    I have provided their contact details below so you can contact them directly:
    Email: customercare@postoffice.co.uk
    Telephone: 03456 112 970
    Caroline Alder
    Customer Service Advisor
    +++++++++++
    So, who is responsible in the UK for producing stamps, is it Royal Mail, or is it The Post Office?

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  26. Mary says:

    An update from Royal Mail:
    " Royal Mail produces the stamps and we supply them to the Post Office Blank. It is the Post Office that is responsible for the wording on the stamps not Royal Mail.
    For this issue to be resolved please contact the Post Office.
    Regards
    Rhys Owen (Customer Service Advisor) "
    ++++++++
    I'm waiting for a reply from the Post Office.

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  27. Mary says:

    This the reply that has been received from Shirley Ledson, a Customer Service Advisor - Customer Care at The Post Office.
    "Thank you for your email. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. The upper case K was implemented as a standard weight format by the company who issued the Post Office Horizon System. I recognise, as you correctly point out, that this should be displayed as a lower case kg. "
    "The Post Office and Royal Mail recognise that this refers to the weight of an item and that despite this grammatical error, this does not have a negative impact on the service we provide. As we do not document the temperature of our items and there has been no issue caused to our customers by this small oversight, this is not a mistake the Post Office feel would be a priority to correct."
    +++++
    Is writing the wrong symbol a 'grammatical error '?
    And readers can comment about her reference to temperature!
    +++++

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  28. BrianAC says:

    @ Mary, 2017-02-23 at 18:24

    The reference to temperature is that K = Kelvin, so quite clearly the 'mistake' is known and its implications fully understood. Full marks to whomever on that one.
    However, to then defend the error as a 'small oversight' is not so good.
    A grammatical error? Well, its more like just pure laziness.

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