Dying embers and a few flying sparks

The concluding article of this series looks at the ignominious end of the UK’s attempt, began fifty years ago, to make the transition to a single, simple and universal measurement system.

In the last article, we saw how in 1978 the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection put off setting a cut-off date for the transfer of the sale of ‘loose goods’ from Imperial to metric. This decision and the principle in Magna Carta that “there be one measure” would haunt his successors through the 1980’s as it became apparent that the muddle in retail business, from greengrocers to carpet warehouses, could not continue indefinitely.

Eventually it appeared there might be a solution: blame Brussels. Accordingly, in 1994 regulations were laid before Parliament relating the use of metric units for price marking purposes. A year later all imperial units ceased to be primary measures, except for eleven units when these were used for specific purposes. New UK regulations prescribed rational metric sizes for many pre-packed goods. In pubs, spirits came in new mL measures. And in 2000, weighing for retail sale using Imperial measures of either ‘loose goods’, for example fruit and vegetables, or ‘from bulk’, for example meat and cheese, was no longer permitted and metric prices had to be displayed. Most supermarkets, grocers, greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers,, corner shops and market traders had completed their preparations in time. Those that had not made a fuss. Brussels was held to be responsible.

There followed, as we know, a long period of conflict as recalcitrant traders trooped through the UK courts, ending in 2004, when one who had been convicted three years earlier lost his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Finally in 2006, the EU Trade Commissioner brought the blame game to an end by confirming the obvious: his primary concern was cross-border trade. British Ministers immediately trumpeted that they had “Saved the pint and the mile”.

Since then, there has been little progress. However, the financial crisis of 2007/8 underlined the risks to the UK economy from reliance on financial services rather than manufacturing. Talk by politicians of “ending boom and bust” changed to “re-balancing the economy”. If this will be possible while the measurement muddle persists remains to be seen.

The conversion of road traffic signs for distance and speed in the Ireland in 2005 at a cost per sign of around one tenth of DfT estimates for the UK should have raised questions but failed to do so, and in 2010 when the Secretary of State for Transport dropped, on grounds of cost, plans for dual height and width restriction signs that would actually have made significant savings there was again no challenge. Rational arguments, it seems, have little relevance for those opposing the completion of the switch to rational measures.

One positive feature of the past fifty years it is that the UK’s options have narrowed. Then there was a choice between metric and Imperial. Now, thanks to changes in the UK and in the wider world, the choice is between metric and muddle. Hitherto, ending the measurement muddle and completing the metric transition, in particular converting road signs, has not been seen by any governing party to be in its interest. One day this may change, perhaps when politicians realise that the current situation does the UK no credit and have the courage to do something about it.

The final word on the ‘blame Brussels’ tactic should go to Jim Humble, the last Director of the UK Metrication Board, who wrote this in 2004:

“Successive DTI Ministers did nothing to inform consumers or public opinion. They did nothing to refute the new “big lie”: namely, that Britain was being forced to change because of the European Commission. In fact, during the past 20 years most Commission officials, European politicians and businesses in continental Europe “couldn’t have given a damn” whether Britain changed to the metric system or not. They seemed to quite like the idea of Britain shooting itself in its economic foot by imposing upon itself the extra costs and waste of maintaining a dual system. For twenty years not one single British Minister has attempted to explain the advantages of metrication, been frank about the changes which had successfully taken place in the rest of the world or the fact that we had committed ourselves to become a metric nation long before we joined the European Community. Most tried to pretend or imply they were protecting our British culture from the European bully.

How sad, what a waste, what a pity.”

13 thoughts on “Dying embers and a few flying sparks”

  1. Another good example of how long-lived the muddle has been in the UK is this article from today’s BBC World Service web site:


    While the content is quite interesting, the use of metric symbols leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from the very minor lack of a space between the numeric value and the symbol for the units being used, the article uses “KW” instead of “kW” (not sure what a Kelvin-Watt is) and the even more dreaded (and totally non-SI) “kph”.

    Seems odd that a premier news organization like the BBC still lacks the editorial savvy to get these things right. But I guess muddles can do that to your brain. 😦


  2. Thanks Ezra for bringing these errors to our attention.
    I’ve complained to the BBC about the inkorrect symbol ‘KW’, and also about the use of the abbreviation ‘kph’ instead of the internationally approved symbol ‘km/h’.

    I don’t know if these errors were made by Richard Anderson, (Business reporter, BBC News), who wrote the article: [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-31300982 ],
    or perhaps by the editor!
    Your point about ‘the BBC still lacks the editorial savvy to get these things right’ is spot on – these errors shouldn’t have been on the BBC website.

    Footnote: ‘inkorrect’ see: http://www.simetricmatters.com/inkorrect.htm


  3. Below is the reply received from the BBC:
    ‘ Thanks for contacting us about a potential error on the BBC News website.
    Due to the sheer volume of articles we publish on a daily basis, spelling and grammatical errors may occasionally appear despite our best efforts to avoid them. We’ve passed on your specific concern to the web team responsible for the item and they’ll investigate. If they confirm the error they’ll correct it as soon as possible.
    Thanks again for bringing this to our attention.
    Kind regards
    Terry Hughes, BBC Complaints ‘


  4. @Philip
    These are not “errors” by the BBC. These are valid abbreviations and are defined in English dictionaries as such. The BBC is only following the normal conventions on how abbreviations are used in the English language. The English language (unlike some European languages) is not regulated, and whatever conventions the SI may have, or may wish to impose, there there is no obligation for English users to use them in favour of any other convention. Generally speaking, the BBC tend to follw the most common/popular usage conventions in their articles.


  5. @Charlie P
    The kW has been around for over 100 years. There has never been any other name for the watt. The k or kilo has been used in UK since (at least) radio was invented (in the UK). The K has probably also been around just as long. This is not some foreign or EU plot to bastardize English, we invented them (probably). Lord Kelvin the K and Marconi the radio. Watt devised the horsepower, now superseded by the watt. All British inventors.
    So it seems you have a problem with SI using English terms recognizing British inventors. Are you suggesting we do not use them because it is SI?
    Strange then that BBC have correct all those errors then. The article now shows the correct kW and also changed the American content from kph to km/h.
    Well done Philip and a terrific thumbs up to the BBC, I can now read the article without grinding my teeth.


  6. Korrection!
    Strange then, that BBC have now corrected all those errors. The article now shows the correct kW and also changed the American content from kph to km/h.


  7. @ Charlie P

    You use the word yourself: conventions, which means an agreed way of doing things. Incorrect usage of metric symbols, like inkorrekt spelling, is not a convention. It is borne out of ignorance of the right way to spell or to write a metric symbol. You stretch the libertarian ideal a bit too far. In its defence, the BBC, like many other major organisations producting written material day in day out, is staffed by human beings who, like us all, make mistakes. Most major publishers produce inhouse style guides, but their staff often even disregard those. I see nothing wrong in pointing someone, or even a major organisation, in the right direction if they diverge slightly off course. If we saw more metric units on our road signs, the right way to write them would be seared into our brain and we would write them correctly automatically. A road sign would not include the symbol kW, but I hope you are not seriously suggesting that to write ‘KW’ or even ‘kph’ is simply another ‘convention’. What appears in dictionaries often reflects common usage but that does not mean it is technically correct, be it a matter of grammar, spelling or metric units.


  8. @BrianAC
    You are preaching to the converted, and I am not questioning the history or pedigree of the SI system. What I am doing though is pointing out that the metric units also exist outside of the SI convention, in the English language in fact, which is *not* constrained or regulated by the SI convention. Kph is a perfectly valid abbreviation in English, as are KW and KWH. You see, letter case for abbreviations in English is not controlled by the SI convention for unit symbols. Don’t get me wrong though, the SI symbols may be freely used in English too. But whether the author chooses to use abbreviations or SI symbols should not matter so long as the meaning is clear in the given context. Don’t be so incorrigible – be thankful that they were using metric units, at least!

    And no, the BBC haven’t *corrected* their piece, they have merely swapped from using abbreviations to using symbols.

    The SI convention is not compulsory, and it doesn’t override the English-language convention of using abbreviations. The choice is that of the author. The BBC didn’t make any mistakes, they just followed the convention for English prose rather than that for an academic or technical paper.

    There is no “technically correct” way to write units in prose, and as you rightly say, dictionaries reflect common usage. It just happens that kph is in common usage, and so it is perfectly acceptable for the BBC to reflect that.


  9. @Charlie P,
    I think many of us would disagree that SI units exist outside the SI convention. The SI is a system, woven with whole cloth, and not just for technical papers. For most nations, the SI is the only system and is intended for “everyman,” not the elite. You either use it or misuse it. It is very clear (sec 5.1) “It is not permissible to use abbreviations for unit symbols or unit names.”

    You have two choices (besides misuse), spell the words in full, or use properly constructed symbols. While the Associated Press in the US misuses kph just like the BBC, note that FMVSS101 requires “km/h” and does not permit “kph” as marking for the metric ring of a speedometer, the MUTCD requires “km/h”, not “kph” on a metric speed limit sign, and the US Government Printing Office Style Manual edits all use of “kph” to “km/h” so Congress can’t screw up in a law, it would be corrected in printing.

    Only idiot journalists use kph, and it is a misuse. The AP is even worse than the BBC (who at least swings both ways); the AP does not approve the use of the correct “km/h” further labeling themselves as idiot journalists. It is most annoying when automotive writers use it in reviewing automobiles, and by law, the speedometer could not have said kph.


  10. @ Charlie P

    We have been round all these houses with you many times before. You call widespread, common, incorrect usage a ‘convention’. I call it incorrect usage. As the national broadcaster, the BBC’s remit includes an aspect of imparting education, which it generally does very well (it also reflects the measurement muddle in its often confusing use of units, so it cannot be accused of biais in that regard). That, no doubt, is why it was quite amenable to correcting the errors pointed out them in the article referred to above.


  11. @John Steele
    I agree that there are two choices with respect to how metric units are written. They are:
    a/ If you have agreed, or are obliged for some reason, to adhere to the SI convention then you should follow it and keep clear of abbreviations.
    b/ Otherwise you are free to use all the features available to all writers of English, including abbreviations.

    The SI regulation barring the use of abbreviations carries no weight or validity outside of the world of “scientific and technical papers” than advice given in any other style guides created for such works.


  12. Common sense would suggest using the official symbols as per SI. Having multiple symbols for the same thing is an unnecessary duplication.


  13. You keep deleting my comments. Who do you think you are, the Daily Telegraph?

    Editor. We ask our contributors to avoid offensive language. What constitutes this is not defined, and you will need to allow us to decide. We also prefer constructive, but not necessarily supportive, comment. If you are happy for us to edit your comments, we will be happy to post them.
    Two of your comments are currently awaiting moderation, the second a longer version of the first.


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