Britain is currently adopting European codes for structural design and allowing British Standard codes to lapse. This raises the issue of the preferred decimal marker – should imperial or continental practice be followed?
Mike Bather, who is a lecturer at the University of Bolton, writes in ‘The Structural Engineer’ of 19 July as follows:
“We as a nation have been driving on the left for far too long. The rest of Europe drives on the right and so should we. I propose we make the changeover gradually over the next the next 3 or 4 years.
Or rather, should I say that we, in the UK, make use of a decimal point in our calculations and when we come across a big number, we use commas to separate the thousands. The rest of Europe uses commas to separate whole numbers from decimals and does not bother to separate the thousands. The Eurocodes which are now our Eurocodes follow this continental approach. Thus we have the potential for an embarrassing mistake or worse.
To compound this, the Eurocodes contain many factors which are new to all of us. I have no idea whether lambda bar w should be 1.450 or 1,450. I am a little concerned that I may make an error one day confusing a point with a comma.
I appreciate that there is a world beyond Europe and, for instance, American engineers appear to follow our current conventions. In fact, the Americans are even more quaintly British than we are as they generally have stuck with pounds, feet and inches and no doubt rods, poles and perches as well. This just serves to complicate matters as we cannot align ourselves with Europe and America at the same time.
Speaking of Americans, they understand the cost of trivial mistakes. ‘People sometimes make errors,’ was how NASA explained the loss of their Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft in 1999. This cost them over $300 million. The error in this case was a simple mix up over imperial and metric units; just the kind of slip that any engineer could make and any child could understand; just like confusing a comma with a decimal point.
Back in the UK, there are two camps developing. In camp one are the old engineers who love their decimal points. They would point out that most (but not all) Eurocode textbooks … stick with the decimal point. This camp includes the engineers who, if truth be told, would still rather be using BS449 and feet and inches.
(Ed. BS449 is a design code for structural steel, first published in the 1930’s)
In camp two are the new wave of students and graduates who are cutting their teeth on the Eurocodes. They are ganging up with the growing band of continental engineers practicing in the UK who think that commas are all you need. This camp includes people who can not write a proper number one and think that a seven needs a cross through it.
I foresee strife in our structural design offices and even worse, some engineers could possibly make some mistakes, confusing commas and points. As a lecturer in the UK (teaching home and international students), I ask for guidance: ‘Is it now time to stop using commas to separate thousands and to start using commas in place of decimal points or should I tell my students that they can drive on whichever side of the road they like?”
UKMA is considering publishing a Style Guide reference card in durable format, the purpose of which will be to help writers who would like to use metric measurement units correctly but are not quite sure of the rules. Where practices are internationally agreed, it is likely the Style Guide will recommend them, including the use of a space as a thousands marker. Where there is no international agreement, and this includes the preferred decimal marker, the editors are likely to give ease of use by the intended readers a high priority.