Carry on muddling

In these uncertain times, politicians are often keen to point out areas where Britain leads the world. We have a suggestion: creating a measurement muddle. Examples follow.

One of our readers has drawn our attention to his Ageas Countrywide Avenues House & Home Insurance Policy. In the Policy booklet dated Oct 2017, under ‘Buildings and contents, section five, STORM’, it is stated:

“By a storm, we mean … winds over 55mph … Rainfall … more than an inch falls in an hour.  Snow … if 12 inches or more falls in a 24 hour period.”

However, when we consulted our home insurance policy, issued by Towergate Insurance, we read:

The property “Is free from rivers, streams or tidal waters within 500 metres of its vicinity”.

So, rain or snow falling on a property insured by Ageas will be measured in Imperial, but after it reaches the ground Towergate will assess the resulting risk by its distance away in metres. Hmmm.

On Wednesday, we picked up the Evening Standard and, while browsing the Homes & Property section, we noticed, even before we had passed page 3, the following:

“… Harry the Hermit, who won squatters’ rights to a half-acre plot on the edge of Hampstead Heath …”

“Glamour comes big for this power couple with 3,300sq ft of space …”

“For extra pampering, there is a 25-metre residents’ swimming pool, …”

So whether you are a hermit or a power couple, your property will be sized in Imperial, but as soon as you visit the pool you will need to think metric.

Pages 6 and 7, listing the winners of the New Homes Awards 2018, we noted references to:

“Generous-size houses, typically 2,000sq ft”,

“the lovely green backdrop of the 200 acre Syon Park”, and

“A vast open-plan living space stretches to 21.6 metres”.

But we weren’t quite sure what to make of this:

“a programmable mood lighting system has no fewer that 2,700 Kelvin warm white lamps.”

There again, if you are muddling through with two measurement systems, you can’t be expected to be expert in either.

The advantages of being the world leader in the creation of a measurement muddle are open to discussion. Britain does benefit from being the origin of the world’s most popular second language. But is our hybrid mix of metric and Imperial measurements likely to catch on? We think not. It took less than 200 years for the metric system to be adopted by all but a handful of the countries of the world, and in the 21st century there is no sign of a retreat. But that won’t, it seems, stop Britain carrying on muddling.

39 thoughts on “Carry on muddling”

  1. I thought acres went out the window in the UK years ago. What happened???


  2. I think the Evening Standard and The Independent are probably the most metric friendly UK newspapers. However, the Homes and Property section, which I think is common to both papers, looks like it was written in 1950 with all those square feet, acres and 20 foot reception rooms. Maybe it’s written by ex real estate agents. Real estate seems to be the last industry in Britain still holding out against metric measurements. I don’t understand why because buildings have been designed and built using international measurements for more than fifty years.


  3. A great example of how muddling works (or more to the point, does not) is shown graphically in the 1995 movie “Free Fall: Flight 174” that depicts the story of the infamous Canadian “Gimley Glider”:

    Check the movie out starting at the 5:14 time mark up to 5:55 where the ground crew exhibits its confusion thanks to the muddling mayhem they had to muck with. A very graphic example of how NOT to convert a country to metric!

    Time for Westminster to convert road signs, lean on the BBC and other media to ditch Imperial, and chuck “stones” into the dustbin of history! 😉

    Once you lot do this, we here on this side of the Pond will hopefully use you guys as an example for us over here in the States to get cracking and convert to metric as well!


  4. Sales brochure for new apartment development in East London that has just come onto the market.
    The floor areas on the first page are given only in square feet. No mention of square metres at all. Admittedly by clicking the View Property tag a floor plan with the area in square metres and square feet is given but I really don’t know why the area in SI units should be relegated to second place when SI units are the legal requirement for selling property in the UK.


  5. Sadly current political events really highlight how mixed up we are as a country where a vocal (and often well financed) few are managing to force their will on the rest of us.


  6. So, I get that the UK is in a metric muddle and that local radio (even the BBC) can reflect that.

    But the BBC World Service touts itself as “the world’s radio station”. So, why on earth would a foreign reporter who is located in a metric country and reporting on a news item from that country use Imperial?


    This Egyptian reporter (with a clearly Arabic accent) was telling the listeners about how the government there is cutting back on the allowed cultivation of rice (which needs lots of water) because Ethiopia is building a dam upstream on the Nile river. Important bit of news, I agree. But what on earth is he doing reporting on the area of cultivated land to be reduced by referring to “acres”????

    Maybe I should use the BBC feedback channel and ask them what they could possibly thinking when they allow this sort of thing. I am sure that news segment was recorded so it could have been done properly using “hectares”. (And is it not a bad sign that an Egyptian reporter still assumes in 2018 that English listeners will not understand metric? So much for “global Britain”, eh? 😉


  7. @Ezra Steinberg says: 2018-05-25 at 17:00 I thought acres went out the window in the UK years ago. What happened???

    Well, carry on muddling is what has happened, in that we are for sure a world leader.
    Totally confusing conflicts that bemuse me are the construction industry being fully metric, but the selling of their products in Imperial. Land registry in hectares only for many years but again the product sold in acres, even official government literature. The NHS being also fully metric but babies weights translated into lbs and oz. Body weight for overweight and slimming totally stones and gravel, yet body building and healthy issues all metric (quite telling that one, those that take care use metric). Local parks and gardens mostly metric, but paper hand outs in Imperial. One that is consistent is bedding, asleep on the job, everything (almost) is still in ft and inches, it is like shopping back in the 1960’s! again this despite a 1.5 m x 2 m bed being much better than a 4 ft x 6 ft bed. Maybe we can add to this the media, where we are getting a situation of UK presenters using at least some metric (getting rapidly more again now) and overseas presenters in metric countries still using Imperial.
    That is global Britain today, forward thinking and open for international business.


  8. @ Ezra Steinberg:

    The BBC seems to be doing it all the time. I heard the scale of the terrible fire on the Wanstead Flats reported as covering so-many football pitches. I realise the ‘football pitch’, along with the ‘Nelson’s column’ and the size of Wales are used informally as an indicator of scale, but I really have no idea how big a football pitch is (despite having accompanied my son to his football team’s matches for several years when he was young). It seems the BBC knows it shouldn’t use acres but is reluctant to use hectares. Why don’t they give the dimensions of the area in thousands of square metres. Everyone surely knows what a square metre is by now.


  9. “The 9ft (2.74m) creature was seen close to shore in St Ives on Monday.”

    I would be curious to know if someone actually got into the water and was able to measure the shark to come up with this exact 9ft (2.74m) length. If not, both are fake measurements. How do we know it really wasn’t exactly 2.5 m or even 3 m?


  10. Daniel’s comment (2018-07-19), I suggest fake measurements and fake measures should be considered to be ‘fake news’.


  11. @ Daniel Jackson:

    My thoughts entirely about the shark. Especially the figure in metres to two decimal places! I’m sure the length in feet was just a rough guess by someone standing and observing the situation. And then the journalist provides a very concise conversion to a metric figure. The joys of the measurement muddle!


  12. @Daniel Jackson

    Good point, Daniel.

    What really puzzles me is why Imperial came first. Of course, the article should have just used metric, but in the past at least these BBC articles relegate the Imperial to second place inside parentheses. This article really seems like it has gone backwards.

    So much for getting any help from the BBC to unmuddle things.


  13. Ezra, the answer is quite simple. The BBC is an institution that of itself cannot make decisions. People who are a part of that institution male decisions. Whereas in the past one person may have made policy for the BBC and establish the metric system as mandatory, recent policy may not enforce the former policy and allow individuals to choose whatever unis they want out of personal preference. So, if a reporter/editor is an imperial supporter, their unit choice is going to be imperial. Metric will become the afterthought with the metric value being as silly as can be in the hopes the reader will be so turned off they will fall in line and become imperial supporters too. The same is true with a metric supporting reporter/editor.

    The war between metric and imperial is being fought street to street and door to door with the combatants fighting for supporters in the media and in the shops. The only way for the muddle to end will be for a pro-metric leader to come to power and outlaw imperial once and for all.


  14. Jake says: 2018-07-19 at 10:58 @ Ezra Steinberg:

    I don’t know what version of the BBC news you are referring to, but mostly the fire size of those around Manchester were referred to correctly as “4 square kilometres” by the fire departments and in the early TV reports. That did later translate into various obscure units once the PR (or PC) brigade woke up and got to work on their multitude of muddled measurement mania.


  15. @BrianAC

    “multitude of muddled measurement mania”?

    Shakespeare would have approved. 🙂


  16. @ Brian AC

    If I remember correctly, the report on the Wanstead Flats fires was on BBC London News. Perhaps that’s why you didn’t see it.


  17. I guess it its the technical writer in me (having worked for several very large high tech firms) that cannot fathom the poor quality of editing that goes into the narration script sof a TV program like BBC’s “Africa”.

    The quality of the video, music, etc. is superb (as is always the case for these BBC productions). And I happen to like Sir David Attenborough’s presentation. The content of the narration is quite good as well except for one mind boggling exception: measurement units are all over the map.

    I know what good editing looks like and that ain’t it. One key that editors respect is consistency. At least within the confines of a single series one would expect a single editor to enforce that. Yet I keep hearing (even in a single episode) every possible variation of units from Centigrade to later Celsius and even Fahrenheit (all by itself!), then “thousands of miles” followed by “hundreds of kilometres”, a crocodile being so many metres long (all by itself; no mention of “feet”), then later a giraffe being so many metres tall immediately followed by the measurement in feet … and on and on it goes.

    Just from a technical editing standpoint this hopelessly jumbled muddle is quite unprofessional and totally out of line with the high standards these programs otherwise adhere to. One might think it would be a matter of professional pride to get the consistency and accuracy bits right … but apparently not, sadly.

    I’ll keep watching, though, and wincing each time the narration goes off the rails when it comes to units of measure. 😦


  18. @Ezra Steinberg, 2018-08-07
    Professional consistency is one point, viewer (or ‘end user’) understanding of the subject matter is something else. Always having been a man of facts, it is the factual information I like, not so much the narrative (aka waffle) if it goes overboard. As years progress I find it more difficult to rationalise a plethora of jumbled up facts and figures.
    My guess is that the vast majority of people, including the editors, do not even realise this is happening. For my part I have given up even trying to watch anything on TV now, there are better ways to get annoyed.
    On the credit side pretty much a first, given the current aspect of Mars, the distance from Earth was given in km. The embedded video logo was that of the European Space Agency (ESA) so metric expected; BBC put up a graphic attributing it to NASA! That is how good they are.


  19. Apart from “leading the world”, it is a pity the media folk cannot “follow the world”.
    Of the 21 Formula One races a year, only one is in a non-metric country (USA) with UK a half-in half-out country. So one would think the main presenter with three years travelling the metric world would at least realise that ‘other countries’ use metric, not imperial measures!
    Last weekend, presenter interviewing French racing driver waffles something like “… how do they fit you into an F1 car, you must be what, about 6 foot?!” French driver, speaking better English than the presenter looks confused, but quickly replies, “I am one eighty six, I don’t know what that is …”. Aussie guest presenter steps in with, ” Oh! Two more than me!”
    Very puzzled look on presenter’s face, it looked like he did not even know what had just been said, let alone understand it.
    For the record I would not know what ‘6 foot’ is either unless I had looked it up recently.


  20. I had to laugh at this one in an article about lemons (referring to greenhouses in Spain) in the ‘Metro’ paper: –
    “It is the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world covering 300sqm and can be seen from the ISS.” Only 300 square metres, that don’t seem very big to me.


  21. Wording in insurance documents risk being dissected in a court of law whereas newspaper reports are (and government guidelines) unlikely to attract the same attention. Hence the frequent use of imperial units in situations where the writer faces a risk of hostile comments (or loss of votes) from those who are unwilling to change or who promote the imperial system as part of a political campaign which, by and large, is unrelated to units of measurement.


  22. An interesting piece of news today (or not).
    “BBC looks at setting up international HQ in Belgium after Brexit”.
    Now, does this herald the education of those EU plebs (along with us moronic hold outs in UK), in the ways of Imperial measures, or does it mean the BBC may some time this century become to realise that the rest of the world uses those strange SI units.
    Sorry for the language used, but it does strike me as a bit of a surreal situation.


  23. Brian,

    I would imagine when BBC international moves to Belgium, most of the staff will be local. These people will have a normal bias towards metric. I don’t think it is a BBC decision on what units are used but the choice of individual members of the staff. Those who are pro-metric will use metric, those who are not won’t. Thus you get a mixture. The chances are higher that when in Belgium there will be a more metric leaning staff presenting metric biased reporting. Let’s hope so.


  24. Brian AC:

    Did you challenge the Metro newspaper about the 300 square metre concentration of greenhouses? Perhaps each of the greenhouses was 50 m long and 6 m wide. That is, what I imagine, the width and length of an individual greenhouse might be. Add the word ‘each’ after the figure you quoted and the article makes sense. But on the other hand we should not be doing the journos’ work for them.


  25. @Jake
    The actual figure should have been 300 square kilometers. More generally it is reckoned at 26,000 Ha, (260 km²) that is the whole of the Almeria desert.
    As you imply, one greenhouse is bigger than 300 square metres, my point exactly!

    No, I did not challenge them, again as you say we should not be doing their job for them. If the journalist cannot see that 300 m² is a ridiculous figure for the worlds largest concentrations of greenhouses, and the editors / proof readers cannot pick it up then maybe they should be the ones picking the lemons – maybe then they would get an appreciation of scale of size.
    Would they make the same error between a square yard and a square mile?
    So again we have 50 years of wasted metric education for nothing in return.


  26. BBC does it again … only worse.

    Newsnight had segment on the Whaley Bridge Dam collapse. Imagine my chagrin when I heard them describe the capacity of the reservoir behind the dam in “gallons” and the size of the reservoir in “miles”.

    That’s it. Just Imperial without even a whiff of metric.

    Krusty the Klown (from The Simpson TV show) describes perfectly what my reaction was to that report:


  27. @Ezra Steinberg says: 2019-08-02 at 01:47

    Ah! Just this very hour I have been researching this muddle, and a muddle it is! Now I have an excuse for a bit of a rant, having just closed down my research as ‘not worth the effort’.
    Of course it is only an approximation at best, of course it is a canal reservoir built 1830 to 1840 for the canals, so lots of the great British nostalgia.
    However this is today, this is lives at risk, this is Britain today. It got more interesting for me when ITV news pops up a figure of “286 million gallons of water, source (of information) canal and river trust”.
    Now 286 million gallons, “strange figure” I thinks. Checking the ITV news web site comes up with 1.3 million tonnes of water, hey presto 286 million gallons for the hapless TV audience! Why the conversion from metric tonnes to gallons? I will leave that to you.
    Next up canal and river trust, Toddbrook Reservoir site, their data, Approximately 0.5km to the south-west of the town of Whaley Bridge and 10km north of Buxton, It has a capacity of 1,238 megalitres, a surface area of 0.056 sq miles, its top out level 185.69m. Why the square miles in there? One can only guess, the very precise 185.69 m? I guess that will be something in feet, fair enough from a design 200 years old, but to the nearest 10 mm in 185 m?
    At least I have not seen that in Olympic swimming pools yet, but one channel did give 300 million gallons, and another 1.5 million tonnes (a conversion of that conversion?)
    There you go, forward looking Britain open for business, trust us, we know how to make things work.


  28. More muddle from BBC news on line today,
    This gem of a conversion from native metric to some obscure units: – The 2,000 sq m (6,500 sq ft) enclosure housed rare Bornean orangutans, chimpanzees and marmosets.
    Firstly, full marks for sensible rounding rather than decimal dust, not so many marks for the arithmetic, (20,000 of those square footsie things would be a reasonable conversion).
    They will never learn to square that circle. What to some of us is a serious indecent is reduced to a laughing stock by a stupid and totally unnecessary conversion.


  29. After I contacted them, the BBC have corrected their website. It now read “21,500” square feet, rather than “6,500” square feet.


  30. @Martin

    Yes, 21,500 is the figure I suggested to them as well.
    I also queried why they felt the need to convert metres to feet at all after 50 years of metric education. Quite clearly they do consider the UK population to still require this banal dumbing down exercise. I cannot see things changing for the better any time soon, I do think we are in for another spate of regression though.


  31. To BrianAC:

    It’s the road signs, innit! Unless someone is in a profession involving measurement, they probably won’t actively need or think about the metres they learnt at school once they leave school (unless they drive abroad when they might recall what they learnt). Feet are all over UK road signs. I suppose kids must learn some sort of conversion from metric to the Roman units used on road signs, but many people think they understand feet but not metres. Change the road signs, change the way people relate to metres on an everyday basis.


  32. ‘Starting to change the way people relate to metres on an everyday basis..’

    It might seem very extreme – ban 12 inch (one foot) rulers in schools!
    Is there any school in the UK that prohibits the use of imperial measures, and imperial measuring devices? Probably not, because imperial measures are still included in parts of the Curriculum.
    ‘Starting to change the way people relate to joules on an everyday basis …’
    Stop school examination boards including the use of ‘kcal’; and get members of The Royal Society to do something they should have done about half a century ago …
    [see metric views

    Report of the Subcommittee on Metrication of the British National Committee for Nutritional Science.
    Proc Nutr Soc. 1972 Sep;31(2):239-47.

    to include a much better teaching of ‘energy’ (and ‘power’) across the curriculum – not just in Physics.


  33. More ‘fun’ on ITV Meridian news last night, drones weighing more than 250 kg need to be registered, he says seriously, while holding a tiny drone (of the 250 g type) in his hand!
    We ought to be able to give credit where metric only is used, but it seems the media will never see the stupidity of their blunders.
    Quite clearly this reporter has never bought a kg of anything in a supermarket.


  34. Why, oh why is the BBC still including degrees Fahrenheit in its reporting on the Australian bush fires?

    Who the heck understands Fahrenheit any more in the UK?

    (In Canada no one has understood Fahrenheit since the 1970’s because they dropped it completely in favour of Celsius. Same goes for miles vs kilometres because they converted all road signs to metric at the same time.)


  35. @ Ezra:

    The BBC website is aimed at the whole world, so I suppose they include Fahrenheit for our American cousins across the pond. I was more bothered by the speeds shown in mph. The reports from Australia will of course have been metric-only. No one apart from the UK and the USA uses mph, so it really would be kinder to use the km/h in the original reports and understood by the international community. Let’s not forget amidst our admonishings what a terrible time many Australians are going through at the moment.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: