BBC symbol clangers

John Austin, editor of the UK Metric Association (UKMA) newsletter, looks at incorrect metric symbols used by the BBC.

The BBC has become something of a punchbag for members of UKMA over the years, here and in its newsletter. It’s perhaps not that the BBC is any worse than other institutions, such as newspapers, but rather that it is rightly considered an important voice in the country and those of us who like to see items properly described can be critical, but I think in a constructive manner.

The latest item that stimulated some angst in my mind was a description of atmospheric pollution levels during the Covid-19 lockdown period. The item described how pollution levels in Scotland had dropped significantly and were now below WHO recommended maxima. For the record I am quite well qualified to comment on this article as my scientific career was devoted to atmospheric chemistry (especially in relation to climate change) so I am quite familiar with the units used. The article can be found here However, the original no longer exists as it had undergone some changes following my comments. Nonetheless, the article to be found now still retains some of the criticisms that I had originally. This is, as many readers of Metric Views probably appreciate, frustrating. The SI is in itself a powerful system of units which comes with an imbedded philosophy which includes the correct symbolism. Use of different symbols is confusing and unnecessary. So when the BBC uses loose terminology it is impeding the high standard of communication inherent in the SI. When informed of errors in the use of symbols on the metric system, one expects the BBC to correct them, not carry on with their own editorial standards.

Here is the message I sent them.

“In previous correspondence with the BBC we have noted that the BBC tend only to use metric units in science articles, even though we would like to see that expanded. Nonetheless where exclusive use of metric exists, the proper abbreviations of units should be adopted as incorrect abbreviations cause confusion. The article in question was a science article and was full of incorrect abbreviations. The first point is that letter case is important regarding units. For example, 5 Mm would be 5000 km while 5 mm is well under a metre. The article in question has numerous uses of the abbreviation MCG. This is not an established scientific unit, and it is irresponsible to introduce it in the article as such. There is a case to be made for the use of mcg for microgram but in this day and age, the use of the Greek letter mu for micron (the official metric pre-multiplier) is available. This is correctly shown in the table on PM10 concentrations. So, you provide a mix of names for the same measurement. The next point is that what you label as MCG is actually a density mcg/m3. And there we come to the next point, not only is the Greek letter mu not available, but so too are superfixes and suffices. All of these characters, Greek letters, suffices and superfixes are available trivially in HTML in which the website is presumably written. For example, as well as the issues with units alluded to previously, we see NO2 in the article which should be NO<sub>2</sub> and that would then appear correctly on the webpage. For MCG you should use &mu;g and for m3 you could use m<sup>3</sup> on the website coding. It really isn’t difficult and it looks like a subeditor task. Without proper use of symbols and measurements the webpages just look unprofessional.”

Whenever you send a message to a complaint service it nearly always comes back with a copy of the message sent. Ironically, and perhaps frustratingly, all the HTML symbols in the above text came back correctly (although they have not been corrected in the original text). In other words NO<sub>2</sub> in the article appeared as NO2 in the confirmation email and m<sup>3</sup> appeared as m3! Usually also, complaint services add that “all of our staff are exceptionally busy right now and will get back to you with an answer in due course”, or some such variant. And so it was with the BBC. But, we are in lock down, so what were the BBC staff doing, one wonders? As it happens I received a response in a short time which simply stated that the article had been changed following my remarks. However, perusal of my comments and the revised webpage can confirm that the correct chemical symbol for NO2 etc. are still not present. There has been some effort to address the BBC symbol MCG but only to persist with the less recommended version mcg/m3. On one occasion MCG is still present, but that is probably an editorial oversight.

I have checked for the use of the symbol mcg as an alternative to µ, see for example . It is not really recommended as it causes ambiguity with the term milli centi gram, which is also nonstandard and would be 10 μg. Apparently mcg tends to be used by the USA and the UK medical fraternity, although whenever I have seen drug concentrations these have always used the Greek letter. Indeed it is something of an insult to the Greeks to refuse to use their letters when presumably everyone else in Europe seems to be able to cope. Apparently the reason for the mcg symbol according to Wikipedia is that the US Federal Drug Administration thought that μ would be confused with m. Frankly I think you would need to be dyslexic to misread this symbol as another m. I know that when I was a young scientist and we had to send our research papers to be typed by the “typing pool” the symbol was always typed as u and we put the tail in by pen before distributing to other readers. Decades later, most of us have moved on. If the BBC is allergic to Greek, why don’t they use a u instead?

In the final analysis, this awful symbol mcg/m3 (which is properly and elegantly conveyed in the original scientific papers) could easily have been replaced by ng/L without all this pain and suffering, as the numbers would have been identical.

15 thoughts on “BBC symbol clangers”

  1. All fair points. But to us lovers of ‘proper’ use of English, and spelling, there are a number of – admittedly very minor – grammatical errors in John Austin’s letter. Plus – imbedded? Whereas it would have been not exactly incorrect to use imbed for embed some decades ago, embedded is a relatively recent mangling of embed, and imbedded is deemed completely incorrect. John could have used the odd semi colon here and there too, and while his spelling is otherwise sound, lest glass house dwellers wish to attract the odd stone their way we must all, therefore, thoroughly check what we write.
    I write this, I trust everyone understands, with my tongue wedged somewhat into my cheek! And it is mostly intended in fun. But, just sayin’ – it is too easy to make mistakes. I totally agree with John that errors in abbreviations, or problems with conversions between time-served and timed out imperial measurements and metric ones, or non-standard use of abbreviations etc can cause problems down the line, there must surely be only one totally correct abbreviation for any given situation, where substitution of the nearest symbol won’t do.
    On the conversion business (and not at all related to John’s letter or point, but), there have been a number of examples of how the misunderstanding of quantities has caused death. One example is of a Canadian flight, just after Canada went fully decimal (surprisingly recently), where the pilots thought they had too much fuel on board, ‘the numbers’ looking far too high for the needs of the next flight. When they had a mechanical issue which required them to land as soon as reasonably possible, they figured they had too much fuel on board, too heavy for a safe landing. They jettisoned the fuel they thought was correct, and ran out of fuel before they could land – gallons read for litres, pounds for kilos and so on, and the 200andsomething tons the flight computer read out being misread as 300and something thus ‘confirming’ they had way too much fuel on board, a compound failure of number interpretation. On the general subject, and in spite of my enjoyment of old systems of measurement, I wonder when the rest of the world will stand up to the USA and force them to use (kilo)metres and litres and kilograms/tonnes etc? (I also wonder when the compass will be decimalised? Why not have 10 divisions of a circle/sphere, subdivided by ten and so on? While I’m on a roll, why not 10 days in a week, with ‘weekends’ placed wherever it suits! Or 10×36 day months? Round pegs, square holes – we are surrounded by them!)


  2. My favourite example of misuse of upper- and lower-case letters is to explain the difference between a 2mW supply and a 2MW supply. Hearing aids are typically powered by 2 mW batteries while a commuter train typically require a 2 MW power supply.


  3. Maybe the BBC (and others) are confusing abbreviations with symbols? We should presumably always refer to the latter rather than the former.


  4. Tim,
    The BBC can’t confuse anything. The BBC is not a sentient being, it is an entity. People who work at the BBC get confused. They also have choices and may choose to use the wrong symbols or choose to use either SI or non-SI units. The problem with blaming the BBC is that we are blaming the entire staff instead of just those individuals who get it wrong, either by ignorance or on purpose.
    When ancient units are used in BBC publications, it is the choice of a particular employee, not all employees, even though some employees may support the choice while other employees may prefer to us SI units.
    If we keep blaming an entity instead of real people, the problems will never be solved. They will fester forever.


  5. Tim,
    I got the point, but I can see you and others didn’t and continue not to.


    This is a subject that keeps cropping up and surely is fairly easy solvable if the BBC were to include units of measurement in their ‘BBC News style guide’. BBC journalists are presumably required to comply with this up -to -date reference tool to ensure consistency and accuracy across all their news outlets.
    On a similar topic, I have been surprised recently that BBC Radio Somerset still use the ‘F’ word in their weather forecasts, whereas it seems to have disappeared in BBC national forecasts. I have pointed this out to them but received no response.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tim,
    Since the style guide was written by a person, most likely an editor, that person/editor would interject their personal preferences into the guide. If the person/editor is pro-metric, the guide will be metric. If a new person/editor is replaced with someone new, that person/editor will most likely change the guide to suit their own personal preference. Thus the articles can be metric in one era, and imperial in another, depending on the preference of the editor of the style guide.
    The same is true for BBC Radio. If the broadcasts still use foreignheat units, it’s because the person (not the BBC entity) in charge of that station has made the personal decision to use foreignheat and doesn’t care what the rest of the people in the organisation like or do. This person doesn’t care about your opinion and has decided to ignore you and continue to put forth their personal preference. The only way this will change is when the person making the decision is replaced by someone who prefers metric units.


  8. What this highlights, more than anything, is the ill thought-out and, quite frankly, the poor design of the ‘symbols’ specified by the SI. Many of them being unfit for purpose as they rely on typographical exactness which can be impractical (e.g. where printers, stencils, etc. cannot render different cases or Greek characters or sub- or super-text) and relies on a level of interest or knowledge or expertise which is simply not widespread in the general population. Particularly, ‘symbols’ that rely on case to convey their true meaning are a disaster waiting to happen. Who on earth thought it was a good idea for “M” and “m” to have such drastically different meanings, or to stipulate that some symbols will be Greek characters which do not appear on standard keyboards and cannot be rendered by a variety of printing devices and probably cannot be hand-written or pronounced by a significant proportion of ‘normal’ people? If common sense prevailed and symbols were more human- and IT-equipment-friendly, metric units would, I am sure, be much more likely to succeed here. And the one thing that is guaranteed to make the situation worse, is the holier-than-thou and condescending attitude towards those whose level of interest and obsession with typographical matters is not up to the standard demanded by the SI, and which is only found in some branches of academia whose livelihoods depend on being able to get it right.


  9. Charlie P couldn’t be anymore wrong. It has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons he has given. It has everything to do with proper education. A similar situation would exist with language and spelling. Spelling has to be taught properly and learned, otherwise every person would spell words as they see fit. Proper education insures a standardised spelling of words throughout the language area.
    SI units and symbols are not taught in the same way schools teach spelling. If it was, then everyone would know the proper symbols and would use them correctly. If symbols had been taught correctly decades or more ago, equipment, such as keyboards would have added the keys needed to keyboards to accommodate the the Omega (Ω) and the mu (μ). Presently, the symbols can be added via alt codes or cut & pasting.
    Even with proper education, there will still be the Charlie Pees of the world who just out of sheer hatred for the metric system would look for any excuse to put the metric system down.


  10. Standard internationally recognised symbols are one of the reasons why the metric system has been such a success throughout the world. Standard symbols enable measurements to be expressed without the need for translations for different languages.

    The obvious example is metric road signs, where a standard pictogram sign with a plate expressing a distance of e.g. “400 m”, can be understood by anyone from anywhere in the world. In contrast, imperial units have no standard symbols, and translations are required. e.g. in Wales a distance plate on a similar road sign would have to say “400 yds 400 llath”, and even then it would still be meaningless to most visitors from abroad.

    Just as the correct use of standard symbols leads to clarity and understanding, failure to use them correctly can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Signs such as “Services 50 m” are another example of how failing to use standard metric symbols is letting our country down.


  11. Thankfully the metric system long ago superceded the use of the old English apothecaries’ system in this country, and we are all spared from its bizarre pre-metric unit symbols.

    In contrast to the simplicity of metric unit symbols, expressing amounts in the pre-metric English apothecaries’ system was far from straight forward. In the system, a pound (symbol ℔) was divided into 12 ounces (symbol ℥), and ounces were further subdivided into drams or drachms (symbol ʒ), and scruples (symbol ℈).

    A volume of liquid that was approximately that of an apothecaries’ ounce of water was called a fluid ounce (symbol ƒ℥), which was further subdivided into fluid drachms (symbol ƒʒ) and fluid scruples (symbol ƒ℈).

    Using the system, numeric values were expressed in Roman numerals.

    ℈ix = 9 scruples
    ʒiij = 3 drachms (any trailing “i” would be written as “j”)
    ʒss = 0.5 drachms (0.5 is represented as “ss”, a Latin abbreviation for “semis”)
    f℥iv = 4 fluid ounces

    And no, this is not a parody. For further reading see wikipedia:

    Liked by 1 person

  12. With the BBC under constant pressure and adverse criticism about ‘wokeness’ and political correctness from the tabloids, certain political allegiances , in fact from all angles, I very much doubt that the contents of the style guide can be changed without the consent of very senior management or perhaps even a committee.
    Looking at the BBC style guide more closely there are references to units of measurement and the metric system but not under one heading.
    I would like to suggest that UKMA contact the BBC, perhaps via their Science Editor, David Shukman and offer to assist in redrafting, under one heading, a comprehensive section on metric units of measurement. UKMA’s own style guide is a natural starting point but more information may be required.
    This will greatly assist journalists and editors, whom by their education and training are mostly from a non -scientific background.
    Once an accurate and definitive section on S.I. Units is embedded at the BBC through their style guide, then any transgression can easily be be pointed out to them by reference to it and would by definition, be indisputable.
    There’s never been a time like this when science has featured so prominently in the news, from the pandemic to climate change and accurate reporting from the BBC is critically important.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Tim,
    In order for a transgression of the BBC style guide to be avoided, the senior editors/Upper Management at the BBC need to put into effect a directive that the style guide is to be adhered to by all employees of the BBC. Otherwise the status quo will persist, that is where individual editors, department heads, reporters, etc will continue to push through their personal preference into the articles. If some persist in transgressing the style guide, then disciplinary action needs to be taken against the offender, even to the point of dismissal.


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