In an attempt to bring about some improvement in the sloppy and inconsistent way in which metric units are often written, the UK Metric Association has today (5 July 2012) published a “Measurement Units Style Guide”. Aimed at anybody who uses metric units in their writing, the Guide is available in both hard copy and as a free download from the UKMA website.
UKMA is concerned that, although there is now widespread use of metric units in the UK – in the media, in official documents and in education (not to mention shopkeepers’ signs), they are often written in an amateurish and inconsistent fashion, importing some of the bad habits from obsolete measurement units. Many organisations, although they strive to avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes, appear to tolerate or condone bad practice in the writing of measurement units. Unfortunately, mistakes that appear in print tend to be copied by readers, and bad practice is thereby disseminated. This lack of consistency does not help understanding or clear communication. It also conveys the impression that metric units are unfamiliar and difficult rather than being instantly recognisable symbols that we all relate to.
It is believed that this inconsistency stems in part from the lack of easily accessible guidance or advice. This Style Guide is intended to fill this gap.
In drafting the Guide, its authors were faced with a number of problems:
- Many writers, especially professional writers, think they know how to write, and may resent being told by outsiders how to do their job
- Others need to be convinced that there is a right and wrong way of writing measurement units – or that it matters
- The media are in the business of communication and they therefore need to take account of their readers’ level of familiarity and understanding
- Some areas of UK life such as road signs are still officially imperial, and it is difficult for the general media to discuss motoring issues without any reference to imperial units
- The failure hitherto of the education system over nearly 40 years to establish good practice in writing measurement units
- Technical difficulties such as the absence of certain symbols from computer keyboards
The Guide has therefore had to try to strike a balance between – on the one hand – advocating adherence to the formal rules (as laid down by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) and endorsed by the British Standards Institution) and – on the other hand – being sensitive to the understandable concerns of professional writers and the constraints of the “two systems” muddle in the UK.
Whether the Guide has struck the right balance remains to be seen. Purists may be disappointed that it accepts the necessity for allowing some use of “miles per hour” (mph) in motoring reports, or of “calories” in nutrition stories. Others may worry that its dismissal of the Fahrenheit temperature scale may alienate some writers.
UKMA is at pains to emphasise that it is not the primary purpose of the Guide to persuade writers to change from using imperial units to using metric units. As their press release commented, ‘That is a matter for the policy of the organisation they are writing for. Rather its purpose is to help writers who want to write metric units correctly. “After all,” added UKMA’s Chairman, “most people strive to avoid spelling or grammatical mistakes. I hope our Guide will help them to avoid mistakes in writing measurement units”.’
Issues that the Guide deals with include:
- When to use capitals and when to use lower case
- Which metric units to use
- How the metric system works
- The difference between symbols and abbreviations
- What to do about conversions
- Avoiding mixing metric and imperial
- Advice on punctuation
- Common mistakes to avoid
Electronic copies of the Guide can be downloaded from the UKMA website at https://ukma.org.uk/style-guide/
The hard copy of the Guide is attractively printed in colour on A3 card folded to four sides of A4 and is intended as a durable reference card that writers can keep on or next to their desk. UKMA can supply small quantities (up to 10) free of charge, but for larger quantities, it will be necessary to cover the costs, which are 30p per copy, plus postage. (Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org ).