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:|
|kilo||kilogram (rhymes with pillow)|
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: