A problem with symbols

A quest by one of our readers for a new washing machine has prompted a look at Britain’s confused approach to the use of symbols.

In Britain, there are many activities where the use of symbols is taken for granted.

For currency, we use the symbols £ and p without a second thought. We would not dream of writing £s5, P5 or 5 £s instead of £5. We are familiar too with the US dollar, $. And we take the euro, €, in our stride.

On traffic signs, we can recognise many symbols such as those for cycles, lorries, deer, roundabouts, humps or historic houses. Not to mention the steam locomotive warning of an un-gated level crossing and the letter P on a blue background for parking.

Even the non-scientific among us know some of the symbols from the periodic table of elements: H2O – that must be water; CO2 – watch out, carbon dioxide; and so on.

But when it comes to measurement units, we revert to the free-for-all that goes with abbreviations.

One of our readers, Philip Bladon, reports as follows:

“Does Hotpoint realise its mistake?

When visiting two different stores both specializing in white goods, on every new Hotpoint washing machine and condenser tumble dryer the inKorrect symbol ‘Kg’ was clearly visible.

Here is a list of the models seen:

1. Hotpoint Ultima S-Line   SWMD9437
2.  Hotpoint Ultima S-Line  SWMD 10637
3.  Hotpoint Aquarius 7Kg. WDD750
4. Hotpoint 9Kg HULT 943 Experience
5. Hotpoint 7Kg HULT 742
6. Hotpoint 7Kg HULT 763
7. Hotpoint 7Kg HV7L 1451
8.  Hotpoint Aquarius 7Kg TCHL 73
9.  Hotpoint Aquarius 8Kg TCFS 83
10.  Hotpoint Aquarius 8Kg TCM 580
11.  Hotpoint eco TECH 7Kg At WM 1/L 7151 STYLE
12.  Hotpoint Aquarius  AQC9 BF5E 9 kg; this had a ‘9Kg’ sticker on it.

On the 8Kg TCM 580 machine, ‘Kg’ appears about nine times.”

Other readers have probably encountered misused measurement unit symbols on numerous occasions: kgs, KG, KM, KW, kw, Kwh, and so on.

Which is unfortunate, as the SI use of symbols can be a powerful tool, conveying a precise meaning that should be understood everywhere.

So how did confusion in Britain arise, and what can be done?

Imperial is a measurement system without symbols. Perhaps Imperial usage has crept into the measures that replaced it. This may be an example of the maxim, old habits die hard.

(In passing, it should be noted that the Latin word libra, plural librae, provides the abbreviation, lb, for the Imperial pound weight and also the symbol for the money pound.)

So, is there anything that can be done?

Clearly, the continued use of Imperial measures on road traffic signs does not help: m for miles – that is an abbreviation, the legal symbol for mile is mile; yd and yds – one a symbol, the other clearly an abbreviation; ft and in are legal symbols but the DfT also uses ‘ and “ contrary to international conventions. Confused? So am I.

Education should lead to greater knowledge, although there is little evidence that current school leavers are better informed than their parents.

UKMA has published a Measurement units style guide, which sets out British and internationally agreed standards for the use of symbols in SI. It may be found here:

http://www.ukma.org.uk/style-guides

Copies of the Style guide were distributed to national and local newspapers, with little apparent effect.

Perhaps our acceptance of confusion around the use of symbols illustrates how difficult it is to persuade us to take measurement seriously.

Footnote: ‘inkorrect’   see: http://simetricmatters.com/inkorrect.htm

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19 Responses to A problem with symbols

  1. John Frewen-Lord says:

    My biggest gripe is the use of 'kph' for kilometres per hour, instead of the correct km/h. All the British newspapers use it. Even the Sunday Times, to which I wrote protesting its use of this solecism. The ST commented at the end of my letter that the Oxford Dictionary specifies 'kph' as the abbreviation (sic) of kilometres per hour, and that therefore there was no reason to change.

    I browse many forums and blogs, some of which are measurement-oriented, or at least involve the use of measurements in some manner. I am encouraged that a large percentage of contributors do actually write 'km/h' (or at least some variant of this, such as 'km/hr', which while still incorrect, is at least is closer to the correct symbol). I guess it all comes down to education. Considering how many people mis-spell my name, the UK seems particularly sloppy in getting the written word right - including metric symbols.

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  2. Alex says:

    It's only been the last year or so that weight limit signs on roads have started to use the correct letter "t" instead of "T" despite them referring to the metric tonne and I'm sure we've all see the not entirely legal road works signs pop up from time to time indicating "mtrs". It's easy to imagine how a population who see incorrect usage in "official" usage might go ahead and repeat incorrect usage too.

    It's also disheartening to see some shop chains (and market stalls who actually comply with the law) using things such as grms, ltrs and kgs on displays and on packaging.

    To some extent I blame the growing trend of using text talk when writing things long hand. After all, if you can't stop people from using things like "ur" instead of your/you're (ignoring the fact that they probably wouldn't get the apostrophe in the right place either) then you're going to be on a loser if you expect them to use the right symbol for metric measures too.

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  3. Charlie says:

    @John

    at least in the UK, it is possible to write either John or Jon (I know people who go by both – that's confusing!)

    I must confess that whilst it does irritate me seeing things like kph, I'd much rather see that than mph. Having travelled abroad a fair amount of time and seeing localised versions of the symbols (such as km/t in Scandinavia for km/h, or cyrillic lettering used in Russia and Belarus) – perhaps I'm just desensitised to uses of abbreviations over symbols.

    I'm personally just happy to see metric used; I'm sure we'd all agree that seeing "5 ltrs" is ultimately preferable to seeing "10 pints" and "110 kph" to "70 mph". I know many will disagree as this eliminates the usefulness of symbols, but I just prefer to see metric used over imperial.

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  4. johnb78 says:

    The Guardian firmly insists on proper SI (F3 and search, or scroll for the various SI related entries): http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-k

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  5. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @ Charlie:

    I agree that seeing incorrect metric units is better than no metric at all, although 'kph' still jars. But it's just not us Brits who can't always get metric symbols right. This is from a Spanish website:

    " La concesión de los 33 Kms entre Pontevedra y Carril..."

    Sigh....

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  6. Han Maenen says:

    In Ireland the correct symbols are used on road- and distance signs, including in the Irish speaking regions.
    I have seen a ludicrous objection to metric some time ago: the names of metric units contain too many syllables, so SI should be condemned. Yes, it is true, many Imperial units have only few syllables: inch and foot, (each one), mile (two), etc. However, I would rather pronounce a few more syllables than having to calculate an invoice with Lsd/ton.cwt.qr.lb. And when writing, everybody can use the symbols, so this syllable-argument is trumped-up nonsense.

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  7. Sven G says:

    Well, for example, in Italy, which is one if the first fully metricated countries in history, sadly there is still a rather (subconscious) chaotic situation: for example, a restaurant or pizzeria could be advertised as distant "200 mt", "200 mt.", "m 200", "m. 200", and so on; also Km (the Metric Maven, however, would say that this is more correct, which we could even agree upon, from a rational point of view...) instead of km is quite easy to see, even on official road signs; and quintals (100 kg) are still widely used: a rather total (even if only formal) mess, thus, even in a fully metric country!

    Considering that Hotpoint (Ariston) is a subsidiary of Indesit... well, who knows, the Kg could perhaps be of Italian as well as of British origin?

    Anyway, the K (a magnifying prefix) could even be a good thing, if the SI were further rationalised in the future...

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  8. Rob says:

    Use of the "T"

    @Alex

    When the incorrect symbol T is used for bridge loading, I assume that in the unlikely event of a bridge being damaged by an HGV the vehicle insurers and driver can avoid liability. Does anyone know what the legal position is?

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  9. Charlie P says:

    To be fair, the source of the problem lies in the poorly thought out unit naming and symbol definition schemes used in the SI system. With the resulting, mostly case-sensitive, symbol system being unsuitable for everyday use.

    The prefix system leads to long, similarly starting names. For example we have: millimetre, millilitre, milligram. Human nature will tend to abbreviate them all to something like "mil", which obviously isn't optimal.

    Then we have the SI banning abbreviations and insisting on standard official symbols. This means everyone, including the illiterate, the stupid, the stubborn and the disruptive, have to be effectively trained in their use. mm, Mm, Mt and mT are all different things and must not be confused - on the other hand, ml and mL are the same thing! And more importantly, not only does everyone need to appreciate the subtleties of the symbols, but they also need to religiously comply with them at all times to avoid confusion.

    Additionally, the case-sensitive issue and the need for Greek letters means that not all the symbols can even be rendered correctly with standard industrial upper-case only labelling machines and stencils.

    It's as if the SI doesn't belong in the real world, but in some idealised mathematical utopia!

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  10. Jake says:

    A quick search of the online Oxford Dictionaries has yielded the following: "While kph is widely used as an abbreviation of kilometres per hour, the correct SI unit is km/h, and this is the generally preferred form." So if the Sunday Times is basing its statement that kph is the abbreviation of kilometres per hour on that entry, it is deliberately choosing to ignore the rest of the advice, namely that km/h is the correct SI unit and is generally preferred. I had a minor success about ten years ago in convincing the Concise Oxford Dictionary (paper version) to drop its entry of kph for kilometres per hour and to include the proper SI unit km/h, which can be seen on the inner ring of speedos on UK-registered cars, so it is not particulary alien or strange to Britons. In their defence, it has to be said that dictionaries often reflect what the general public use and write rather than what is strictly speaking correct, certainly in their recommendations on grammar, but they do not normally extend that to including common misspellings as the 'correct' form just because so many people tend to misspell a word in a certain way. One wonders therefore why they quote incorrect usage for symbols for units of measurement.

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  11. Martin Vlietstra says:

    "kph" is certainly a valid abbreviation in English, but will mean nothing to an Italian who would write "chilometri all'ora". The symbol "km/h" is of course meaningful to everybody regardless of language.

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  12. Alex says:

    @Rob, regarding "T" vs "t"

    I did some personal research on this a few years back (some of which may have even found its way onto this site at some point)...

    On the one hand the imperial ton is close enough to the tonne to not make a great deal of difference so I couldn't see it ever being an issue, however on the other hand I did stumble on a document (I think it was Derbyshire Council but it was some years ago now) that made the point that signs labelled "TON" should be altered to avoid that council having any liability if anything bad ever did happen.

    Unfortunately the latter argument didn't impress Peterborough City Council who are responsible for a sign outside Wansford Cambs which, 4 years after I reported it, still states "Weight limits 7.5 tonnes & 2 tons in Wansford village" (in all fairness they did actually replace the "TON" signs with newer "T" ones which were the prescribed ones at the time.

    You can see that sign in Google Street View here

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  13. jackthesmilingblack says:

    I raised the issue of the Daily Telegraph using "kph" over a year ago. Tom Chivers and Peter Hall were the worst offenders. I repeatedly pointed out this wrong usage to the Telegraph, finally getting banned for my trouble. Although on sober reflection it could have been expression like, "Call yourselves profession journalists? I've known smarter washerwomen." And, "Where's the metre, Muppet?"
    However, "‘km/hr’, which while still incorrect": I dispute this as "h" is not the correct abbreviation of hour. Although obviously, metres per second would be far more appropriate as a measure of velocity.
    Next target; to stop the Daily Mail using "lbs" as an abbreviation of pounds weight.
    But hey, par for the course in UK trash culture. Hate it and leave it.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

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  14. Philip says:

    HOTPOINT isn’t the only company which doesn’t seem concerned about using the wrong symbol for the kilogram.

    Early in May this year, during a telephone call to the NANTWICH CHEESE COMPANY a senior member of staff at this company assured me they were happy using the symbols Kg and KJ as they appear on their product labels and website.
    Examples include:
    Residence Reserve Vintage Cheddar 2.5Kg Block
    [‘If you're looking for a cheddar with distinction that Residence Reserve is the cheese for you’.]
    and
    Cheshire Cheese Energy KJ/Kcal 1536/371

    He added, their food consultants and trade organisations have not raised any concerns about the labelling.

    +++++++++++++++

    AND another …
    SMART cars produced in Slovenia, (and perhaps elsewhere), have the wrong symbol for the kilogram (Kg) on the vehicle identification plates. There is a bit of good news; in the owner’s handbook the correct symbol is used. But, unhappily when the Mercedes-Benz & Smart Technical Department was contacted about the wrong symbol (Kg) on the car’s ID plate, the response received was “ to contact the Smart Retailer requesting clarification, it is the Smart Retailer who can raise the issue with the factory for further investigation”.

    How many other vehicle identification plates have the inkorrect symbol (Kg)?

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  15. Daniel Jackson says:

    Philip,

    There are those that believe that all prefixes for multiples of a unit should have a capital symbol. All of the prefixes from mega on upward do and so to be consistent the deka, hecto and kilo should too, thus D, H and K respectively.

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  16. Phil says:

    Tesco’s Delicatessen Counters
    I rarely visit a Tesco store, however yesterday I was in the largest one in Redditch (Worcestershire), and purchased something from their delicatessen counter.
    As expected the label that was printed off had the inkorrect symbol Kg.

    This is a problem I raised with the company many years ago; the reply from the Chief Executive’s Office said they do not intend to change it.

    I had the opportunity to mention this problem of the wrong symbol on printed labels to ‘Mike’ one of the store's managers. He at least promised to contact the software engineers at Tesco to try and get the error corrected.

    So, IF a change occurs in the future – and the printed labels produced after weighing items on Delicatessen Counters always show ‘kg’ instead of ‘Kg’ – then some credit should go to Mike!

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  17. Phil says:

    THE PROBLEM AT TESCO IS NOW MUCH WORSE ...

    Today I returned to the local store and saw a major problem with many of their shelf labels. Throughout the entire store - many different products - where there is a shelf label that has a symbol for the kilogram you'll see the inkorrect Kg.

    It certainly looks like the company has adopted a slightly different shelf label, probably not only changing the font, but also introducing this error.
    I complained to one of the store managers while I was there.
    I added 'who was responsible for this mistake?' and 'why wasn't it spotted earlier?'

    [In a few places and on some products you'll also see: 'KG']

    Later I phoned Tesco [0800 50 55 55] to complain about the inkorrect use of 'Kg' on the shelf labels. Initially I asked the person I spoke to 'a simple test question'; would she kindly tell me the correct symbol for the kilogram? Her answer: " kay gee". Then I quickly enquired, 'is it a capital letter k, or lower case?' Her answer - after much hesitation - "a capital letter k, a big k". I politely told her the correct symbol is 'lower case k and lower case g'; then I added to reinforce it: 'small letter k and a small g'. Then I went on to complain about the shelf labels I saw, and looked forward to the error being corrected as soon as possible.

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  18. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Some years ago the offices where I worked were being reconditioned. During the course of the works, the contracting company sent out a briefing update in which they stated that "2 mW air conditioning units" were being installed. I replied to the editor of the briefing respectfully suggesting that 2 mW air conditioners might not be powerful enough for the office and suggested that they install 2 MW units instead.

    This is an example of where it is important to get the upper and lower case letters correct. (BTW, my hearing aids probably consume about 2 mW).

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  19. Daniel Jackson says:

    Phil,

    The problem you encountered is fully understandable. It comes from the poor teaching of SI units in schools world-wide. There needs to be a standard teaching method based on BIPM and CGPM style rules. If everyone was taught to these rules, the number of these mistakes would virtually disappear. But, who to your knowledge is?

    A proper teaching of SI units would break the bad habit of mixing prefixes with counting words. Those being taught would learn all of the prefixes and apply them such that no counting words are needed. Thus the it would feel normal to say the earth is 150 Gm from the earth and not 150 million km. We would also see an end to the dreaded kph.

    This push to teach SI correctly has to be initiated from the BIPM itself. The BIPM would need to work with each country's measurement standards organisations and through them to the national education departments. Without this type of coordination, the problem will continue and just add more confusion instead of consistency and coherency.

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