Spare a thought for any would-be Brysons out there

What units do you choose when you are writing travel books and other popular non-fiction for English speakers, wherever they might be found? (Article written by a reader of Bill Bryson’s books)

For those who have not come across his books, a few words about Bill Bryson may be helpful. Mr Bryson was born in the USA in 1951, and lived both in England and the USA before settling in England in 2003. He worked as a journalist until 1987, and then became a freelance writer.

For his travel books, Mr Bryson uses the units of measurement he finds in common use in the country he is describing. Easy for him, and it should seem logical to the reader. What a shame that the BBC does not adopt this policy for its news reports from around the world.

But when Mr Bryson embarked on ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘, or, as John Waller of the Guardian called it, ‘a rough guide to science’, his decision on units was not so simple.

Should he:

  • Use metric, and put off many US readers?
  • Use US customary units (USC), antagonise many readers outside the US, reduce the credibility of the science, and defeat one of the purposes of the book?
  • Use a mixture of units, and risk antagonising everyone?
  • Abandon the project?

Fortunately for his readers, he persevered, trying to use USC for ‘conversational’ English and metric for the science. Thus, the Introduction of the book uses USC entirely; Chapter 1, about the universe, is 5:1 in favour of USC; Chapter 2, about the solar system, is 3:1 in favour of metric; and so on.

In my view, as a UK reader, this is not entirely successful, but I have some sympathy for Mr Bryson who had to reach a decision on which system to use each time he needed a measurement unit. There must have been many occasions when he was writing the book that he wished the English-speaking world used a single system of measurement.

What would you have done in his shoes?

In 2004, the book won the Aventis prize for general science, and in 2005 the EU Descartes prize for science communication.

Finally, here is a quote from the popular video “Globalisation and the Information Age” by Karl Fisch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljbI-363A2Q ) for would-be Brysons to consider:

“China will soon become the number one English-speaking country in the world.”

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2 Responses to Spare a thought for any would-be Brysons out there

  1. John Steele says:

    Even in the US, science is taught primarily in metric. If he wishes the book to have any credibility, he needs to use metric.

    If necessary, he can have a chapter on the SI and conversions necessary to his topics as an appendix or something. If really really necessary (and I discourage this approach), he can use dual, metric first, USC in parentheses.

    Does he ever mention volume? How does he handle different gallons and bushels in different English-speaking countries. How does handle different tons (or that damned stone). Metric is the most commonly shared measurement system between English speaking countries because of differences in their "english" units. Ha, forget dual. Just use metric, explain it in an appendix.

    The people who are likely to buy a book on science are likely to have some familiarity with metric and/or are willing to learn it in conjunction with the material.

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  2. philh says:

    It would seem that some authors of science articles which are intended for, and easily understood by, the general public are not shy of using metric only:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8530000/8530995.stm

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