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:
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”