I am 1.79 m tall. But how should I say that?
Some years ago, I was being interviewed on a local radio phone-in programme, and I was asked my height. (Broadcasting presenters usually try to catch you out with such a question, hoping that you will inadvertently revert to imperial, and the presenter can then triumphantly claim that imperial is “natural”).
On this occasion I said “one metre, seventy-nine”, which seemed to satisfy the interviewer and we passed on to more interesting topics. However, later in the programme, after I was off air, a pedantic individual phoned in and said he had converted my figures into feet and inches and calculated that my true height was 3 feet 6½ inches. His reasoning was that in technical drawings “79″ would represent 79 mm – hence, he registered “one metre, seventy-nine” as 1.079 m.
The presenter was bemused by this argument and gave it short shrift. It later transpired that the pedantic individual was a member of an organisation opposed to metrication, and he was obviously just trying to make trouble. Nevertheless the incident, contrived as it was, does raise a genuine difficulty: what is the best or most acceptable way of saying 1.79 m?
- “One metre, seventy nine” is by analogy with how we express prices – e.g. £1.79 would be pronounced as “one pound, seventy nine”. I would guess that, notwithstanding the pedantic trouble maker, most people would understand it in that way. It would be absurd to give your height precisely to the nearest millimetre.
- “One point seven nine metres” is obviously mathematically correct and is not capable of misunderstanding. However, with its use of the decimal point, it may sound somewhat scientific and user-unfriendly to persons unused to metric units.
- Another possibility would be “a hundred and seventy-nine centimetres”. This has the merit of avoiding decimal points and uses only one unit submultiple. This is by analogy with the practice of expressing fuel prices as e.g. “a hundred and thirty-nine pence” per litre.
- What should absolutely be avoided is the imperialist practice of giving both metres and centimetres as though they were different units – i.e. “one metre, seventy-nine centimetres”. This denies one of the key benefits of the metric system – namely, that it is based on a single unit for each physical quantity).
Acceptance of metric units in the UK is not helped by the existence of these alternatives (and there may be others) – people don’t know which to use. It would be better to standardise on one. But which?
On reflection, and despite my earlier response to the interviewer, my preference now is for Option 2. It is unambiguous and does not really place serious mathematical demands on the listener. I am not in favour of dumbing down the metric system to approximate it to archaic imperialist practices.
What do others think?