Pronunciation matters

SI is the international standard of measurement, understood around the globe. But its value in communication can be reduced by variations in the way it is both spoken and written.

Recently, Ronnie Cohen contacted the Canadian Metric Association to get information about the measurement situation in Canada. In his reply, John Bailes asked Ronnie to raise the issue about the US habit of mispronouncing the word “kilometre”. John said, “Unfortunately, the whole world as I have listened has started pronouncing kilometre to sound like speedometer instead of millimetre. The result is that the two of the most important sounds, metre and kilo, in the MKS (sic) system are lost. Everyone is starting to say kellawmuttur, and it makes me gag!”

John Bailes has provided Ronnie with the following information from the “Metric style guide” copyright 1975 Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, page 123 (Excerpted from a National Standard of Canada called the Metric Practice Guide CAN-3-001-02-73):

“To ensure that prefixes retain their identity when pronounced, the first syllable of each prefix is accented. In particular, kilometre should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, as is our custom with units such as kilolitre, kilogram, and kilowatt.

The accent on the second syllable generally applies to measuring devices such as thermometer, speedometer, barometer, and micrometer.”

The metric prefixes should be pronounced like the syllables in the following words:

Metric Prefix Pronounce like:
mega megaphone
kilo kilogram (rhymes with pillow)
hecto heck toe
deca decadent
deci decimal
centi centipede
milli military
micro microphone

The issue of pronunciation is particularly important in distinguishing between micrometre and micrometer. For micrometre, meaning one millionth of a metre, the emphasis is on the first syllable. For micrometer, a measuring instrument for extremely small distances, the emphasis is on the second syllable. Without the differences in emphasis, the distinction between the two is lost in speech.

John omitted to mention that Americans not only mispronounce some metric units but also spell “metre” as “meter”, thereby compounding the problem.

This takes us to the writing of measurement units, which needs care if these are to be internationally understood. In attempt to assist the public, in particular journalists and authors, the UK Metric Association published in 2012 a Measurement units style guide. Information about the guide, and details of how to obtain a free download may be found here:

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6 Responses to Pronunciation matters

  1. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Does anyone know what the situation is in Australia and New Zealand regarding the pronunciation of "kilometre" both in mass media and in the street?

    I watched a show recently about dinosaur discoveries in Queensland and was (as usual) quite pleased hearing the Aussies talking exclusively in metric. The one anomaly was hearing someone in his distinctive Aussie accent pronouncing "kilometre" as most Americans do (kill-AH-muh-ter). I don't know if this fellow was the exception or in fact quite typical for the average Australian. (As for New Zealand, I have zero information regarding their pronunciation.)

  2. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Everything stated in the above article is of course not only technically correct, but obviously desirable. And maybe even achievable in a perfect world. Unfortunately the world is far from perfect. Personally, (and I once wrote an article for this very blog some years ago on this very subject), I think in the long run we simply have to accept some incorrect pronunciation and usage if it gets people using metric where otherwise they wouldn't. To misquote Tennyson, 'Tis better to have used metric and mispronounced it than never to have used it at all.

  3. Jake says:

    Surely the word 'kilometre' is the only metric unit that lends itself to mispronunciation? 'Advertisement' is usually pronounced with the stress on the second syllable in British English, but I have heard it with the stress on the third syllable when spoken by Americans. Even within the UK the word 'umbilical' seems to be stressed on the second or third syllable depending on who is speaking. In spoken language I don't think it matters a great deal, but in written language, whether you are writing a scientific or technical treatise, or a few notes on the back of an envelope to yourself, there is no real reason for writing anything other than the standard symbols unless you wish to end up confusing yourself or potentially others. That usage can broadly be compared with aiming to spell words correctly in the manner of the spelling used in your country.

  4. Michael Glass says:

    In Australia I think that most people say k'LOMata rather than kill-a-metre. That's when we're not shortening it to "k." For most of us it's about 80 ks from Sydney to Wollongong and so on.

    Incorrect? Perhaps. But at least the pronunciation means we can't confuse our k'LOMatas of distance with our kilos of potatoes or our mm of rain when we speak.

    Frankly, I'm not worried. I'm more concerned with other inconsistencies in Australia, such as the use of both acres and hectares in advertisements for rural farms and the confusing use of both inches and centimetres for men's trousers and belts.

  5. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @Michael Glass

    Any ideas as to why hectares and inches have survived in Australia after all these years?

  6. Michael Glass says:

    Not sure.

    Some measures proved easy to get rid of. Weights, for instance are (almost) always in kilograms rather than in stones and pounds. Changing the road signs helped us to switch from miles to kilometres and the exclusive use of Celsius temperatures in the media killed Fahrenheit in Australia.

    However, heights in feet and inches are still relatively common. I think the difference was that our height tends to be stable while our weight tends to fluctuate and for a while at least, you could not buy scales that measured in stones and pounds.

    When it comes to land, the country was surveyed in Imperial measures and farmers keep on referring to their holdings in acres. For other real estate, it's almost all metric in the advertisements (square metres for houses, apartments, suburban and commercial blocks.)

    With clothing, I think that part of the problem was American-style jeans, which are measured in inches. Screen sizes are also measured - diagonally - in inches. Just about everything else, though, is metric.


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