Imperial habits die hard

The attention of Metric Views has been drawn to a question appearing in the ‘Problems solved’ section of the November edition of Which? magazine. It relates to washing powder weights and volumes.

A reader in Plymouth, Devon, posed the following question:

“Why are washing powder measurements in millilitres?

I bought a 650g pack of Tesco Non-Bio Powder laundry detergent. When I looked at the packaging to see how much to use, I saw that the dosage amounts are in millilitres, a measure of liquid, not grams for solid weight. How do I work out how much to use?”

Had this question been directed to Metric Views, we might have responded that the same metric measures of volume are used for solids, liquids and gases. Simple and logical. One reason why metric measures are now almost universal.

If asked to give examples, we might have pointed out that, for example, cubic metres are used for ready-mix concrete, for the sizes of rubbish skips, and for metered water and gas supplies; that litres are used for garden peat, soft drinks and the capacity of suitcases, and that millilitres are used for liquid medicines, cosmetic creams and, yes, washing powder.

The reply from Sara Ingrams, Which? laundry expert, was as follows:

“According to the EU Detergent Regulations, washing powders must have the dosage printed on the packaging in either millilitres or grams. It is easy to understand why laundry liquids and gels’ dosages are given mL, but it is less obvious for powder. These used to be given in mL, but most brands now also print a conversion in grams on the boxes. Tesco told us it expresses the dosage in mL because people use a scoop (with the volume in mL) to measure the powder for the wash, as the pack instructions advise. It added that it is working with its supplier to add conversion details to packs.”

We at Metric Views use a scoop to measure out wash powder, and would not dream of using the kitchen scales. What about our readers?

We are reminded of a comment that appeared in a motoring magazine some years ago. A reader complained that the manual for his new car gave the capacity of the boot in litres which he found strange as he did not intend to fill it with water or any other liquid!

Imperial habits, however illogical, do indeed die hard.

22 thoughts on “Imperial habits die hard”

  1. In this situation, I don’t see it so much as an imperial habit refusing to die out, but how to practically measure washing powder. Which is easier, scoop the amount of powder needed or pull out a balance and measure the precise mass? Using a balance is more technically correct but is it worth the effort to use a balance?

    The compromise in this situation would be for the makers of the powder to either include a cheap measuring scoop calibrated to an exact number of grams equal to one dosage or to sell as an option a calibrated cup with markings indicating the amount in grams based on the powder’s density to the marked line. Of course this cup would only work with that particular brand of powder.

    Indicating on the box a relationship between grams and millilitres based on the powder density would be the best compromise.

    Expressing the space of a car boot in litres is the lazy way to do it. Advertisements should express all three of the linear dimensions because expressing volume only doesn’t tell you how that volume is distributed.


  2. `Contents may settle in transit’. Measuring flakes of anything by volume is less accurate, but getting it slightly wrong with the laundry (they always recommend a considerable overdose, anyway) is preferable to contaminating the scales which you likely also use for food.


  3. @Daniel Jackson

    It is highly impractical to use length, height and width for a boot, especially when you have an irregularly shaped boot. I am not sure how boot volumes are measured, but filling the boot with ping-pong balls and then counting the balls is a simple way to account for all the irregularities that one finds in a boot.


  4. Asking Which? to explain metric is like asking the blind to lead the blind.
    Soap powder and similar have always been measured by volume, be it ‘scoop’ ‘capfull’, ‘cupfull’, ‘handful’, ‘measure’, etc.
    Come on now, really, anyone out there ever seen their mother or grandmother get the kitchen scales out to weigh 1/2 ounce of soap powder??
    Which? like the BBC should get a grip of reality. The answer given is just another anti-EU, anti-metric rant to make it all look difficult.
    The real answer should have been ” .. because that is how it has always been done, it is just the units of measure that are different, … “.
    Finally, after 40 or 50 years someone has woken up and found out their washing powder is in grams.


  5. “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.”
    These common expressions are part of the culture.
    You can even, on occasion, hear an Atheist exclaim. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake”.


  6. Sayings change with time. “Give him an inch and he will take a mile” was originally “Give him an inch and he will take an ell”. The ell (45 inches) was the pre-1824 unit of measure of cloth. In reality it was a “double-ell” as the ell itself was the length of the forearm (22.5 inches), but over the years the word “double” was forgotten. The original saying was well rooted in the tailoring trade. Now people use the “mile” in the saying under the assumption that it was there since time immemorial.


  7. @Martin Vlietstra:

    Ah, the inverse Avagadro Project method for measuring capacity ;-)? I’d bet that instead they simply take the 3D CAD model (of the internal space) and press the `calculate volume’ button. Much the same as with the area of towns and distance by roads. Typically, the base data will be in SI and so naturally will the answer be—for conversion to litres or imperial [square] miles, etc. NB: also works for things as yet unbuilt.


  8. When it comes to Imperial habits dying hard, I wonder if anyone has any insight as to why Imperial still seems to be hanging on in some ways in Australia.

    I just saw a recent documentary posted on YouTube about the drought in Australia. I was struck by the 45 year old farmer who mentioned the size of his farm in “hectares” who then immediately added the equivalent size in “acres”.

    Even worse, his daughter (still in boarding school) talked about how much the family would celebrate with a special meal if “an inch of rain” fell on the farm in a day or during the night.

    “Inch”?? Really?? In the Land of Oz?

    Seriously, does anyone have an explanation for why a young person who has never been exposed to Imperial (other than in American movies or TV programs, I presume) would even think of using “inch” as a unit of rainfall? Totally weird, it seems to me.

    The one thought I have is that she may have heard her father talk about rainfall in “inches”. OK, but then why would a 45-year old be using Imperial when during most (all?) of his life and who clearly always heard weather information only in metric? Because maybe his father always used Imperial for farming related stuff?

    So then the question becomes how much of an influence do habits from the pre-metric days still have on present day Australians? Would really love to know.


  9. Alas, Australia still shows signs of Imperial habits dying hard even after all these years.

    I just saw on my smart phone a short clip from the Australian Broadcasting Network (ABC) where a young-looking reporter with an obviously Australian accent referred to short length as “5 feet” and just a minute later to a longer distance as “12 kilometers” (pronounced correctly, as it happens).

    This is 2019! How on earth is it possible for such a reporter to use “feet” for anything?

    That is truly puzzling, I must say. I have no idea why this should still be happening after Australia fully converted to metric so many years ago. 😦


  10. I recently saw a programme on the Smithsonian Channel called ‘Aerial New Zealand’ where the narrator was giving all distances in miles and heights in feet. I did later note that although the narrator was a woman with a British accent, the IMDB entry for it listed an American male so I have to wonder if perhaps the original was metric and it was ‘muddled’ speficically for a British audience.

    More so since there was one just a couple of nights ago called ‘Aerial Britain’ which was focusing on Scotland. Every single unit given on that one was metric!


  11. Alex,

    Are you saying these programmes have different narrators for the different markets? Also, if a programme is for instance created in New Zealand it may have a New Zealand narrator using SI units, then if broadcast in the US, the narrator is changed to one with an American accent using USC units and if broadcast in England the narrator is changed again to someone from England using a mix of units?

    Even if their are programmes where the narrators are kept to the original, would they dub over the narration changing SI units to USC or imperial?


  12. @Daniel I really don’t know the answer to that… when I saw the “New Zealand” episode I guessed that as a likely spin-off from the “Aerial America” series that it was perhaps intended for an American audience hence the non-metric, I have a bit of an unhealthy addiction to IMDB and was looking at information about the programme and it was blindingly obvious that the named narrator Jim Conrad was clearly not the one I was listening to but at that point drew no conclusions as to the reason why the actual narrator was not listed and why a different one would be used when the information presented was the same.

    It was only a few days later that I caught the ‘Scotland’ episode while the narrator for that was using metric exclusively, that was when the irony of imperial/USC descriptions for a metric country yet metric exclusively for a country that can’t make up its mind hit me.


  13. The sad part is that the USA is causing all this trouble in one way or another.
    Once we convert to metric (long ways off I think, sadly), all that rubbish of Imperial incursions into program narration goes away.


  14. Daniel,

    My own take on this is that it is a total shambles. Reporters, narrators, presenters, commentators, call them what you will, for the most part, just use whatever ad-hock units come into their heads at the time. Of course there are editors (we think) and maybe guidelines (albeit a bit blurred) together with script writers, and of course the current political situation of the day having a greater or lesser effect.
    A few weeks back I was thinking just how far we had come with metric on TV. A big downturn since ‘that memo’ from a certain politician wanting the return to imperial. There are now more F words and inches used in the weather forecasts than I have heard in the last year. Then the Atlantic storms, a good opportunity for mph and feet of rain, storm surge in metres, flood depth in feet, that sort of thing that makes one wonder if anyone thinks at all.


  15. OK, so I am always prepared for some sort of metric muddle when I watch the BBC. However, in recent times I noticed that at least in those documentaries narrated by Sir David Attenborough most of the units used were metric (with an occasional lapse into “miles”, which I attribute to the hanging on of Imperial road signs).

    So, it seemed that nature documentaries were heading in the right direction.

    Tonight I was confronted with an episode of Wild Lands: South Africa (part of the BBC Earth series) narrated by a young British woman who seemed to be in her mid-twenties or so. Imagine my chagrin when I heard her use nothing but Imperial units throughout the episode.

    So, ok, I get that “miles” keeps reappearing because of road signs (although the more recent Attenborough series used “kilometers” most of the time). But report the length of a centipede in inches? Really? With no metric whatsoever?

    The triple whammy for me is that this woman was clearly educated 100% in metric (given her age), was reporting from South Africa (a 100% metric country), and narrating a program destined for a British audience (so no excuse that the producers were targeting an American audience supposedly totally ignorant of metric).

    Honestly, I have to throw up my hands in utter disbelief and despair. What the heck is happening on that side of The Pond???

    (At least we here in America have the excuse that we’re not even trying to convert yet. Sad to say.)


  16. Ezra,
    We cannot disregard the possibility that the UK anti-metric campaign has been hijacked by anti-EU activists and what we are seeing is a subliminal anti-EU. campaign. We frequently have the radio station “Classic FM” on in our house and I have noticed an increase in music such as “Land of hope and glory”, “Rule Britannia” etc. Could a link?


  17. Just saw a news report on Sky News about the changing climate in the Arctic. Overall, very well done and informative.

    The most striking thing for me as far as metrication goes is that the reporter used degrees Celsius for temperature, meters for the depth of the permafrost, etc. The lone divergence from metric units was the use of “miles” for longer distances with no mention of “kilometers” whatsoever.

    This is as striking a piece of evidence that I have seen so far about the nefarious influence of Imperial road signs in the UK. Once those signs get converted (some day?), that should truly finish off Imperial in the United Kingdom once and for all.


  18. I’m pleased to report something that shows all is not lost for the Americans.

    I recently watched something on one of the ‘educational’ channels on TV called “Truth Behind the Moon Landing”, usual American fare about conspiracy theories and trying to prove that they actually did take place. Anyway, in the last episode one of the investigators (an ex FBI agent and soldier apparently) was giving a distance in metres in a park in San Francisco, one of the others asked ‘What is that in yards?’ to which he responded (paraphrased) ‘I don’t know, I was in the military, we use metric!’.


  19. @Alex Bailey

    To (sort of) quote Barack Obama: Yes, we can (convert to metric)!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: