Does the UK’s mixed use of metric and imperial give us a unique ‘superpower’?

When arguing against the completion of metrication, opponents sometimes claim that the UK’s current muddled use of metric units for some things, and imperial for others, gives us an advantage that should be envied when it comes to measurement, in that it somehow makes us ‘bilingual’ in both systems.

This alleged ability has even been said to be our ‘superpower’, a skill unique in the world, that allows us to move effortlessly between imperial measurements and standard metric units (presumably in the same way that Aquaman can live both on dry land and underwater), and as such we should not be seeking to complete the move to the exclusive use of one standard system for all official purposes.

The reality of course is very different. As a YouGov survey (commissioned by UKMA in 2013) showed, British people in general have a poor knowledge of both systems, but understand metric marginally better. This continues to be confirmed by an abundance of anecdotal evidence, some recent examples of which are presented here:

The Graham Norton Show – 2021-11-26

Graham Norton chats with guests Will Smith, Richard Osman, and Chris and Rosie Ramsey. The topic of conversation moves to American actor Will Smith’s weight gain during lockdown, and his subsequent weight loss:

WS: I’m down 15 kilo from that picture right now.
GN: Wow.
RO: I love it, in America that would get a round of applause, wouldn’t it?
LAUGHTER
GN: Here it’s like, “What’s a kilo?”
CR: We don’t have the metric system.
RR: What is that? How much is 15 kilos in pounds?
WS: Oh!, 30 pounds.
RO: Now we’re interested.
LAUGHTER
RR: Oooh! That’s really good!
WS: Wait! … So you don’t? … coz, i was only saying kilos because we’re in …
GN: In Europe.
WS: … in Europe.
GN: Think again!
LAUGHTER
CR: We had a whole thing, you might have missed it.
WS: Oh, we missed it in America too.
LAUGHTER

The apparently genuine inability to understand a weight loss of “15 kilos”, while living in a country that has sold sugar in 1 kilogram bags for nearly 50 years is really quite astonishing.

One can only conclude that, for some people, the prolonged use of different systems for different purposes has led to a disconnect so profound that body weight in stones and pounds has effectively become another arbitrary size system, like dress size, or shoe size.

This should be of concern to all weight loss organisations, diet magazines, and main stream media such as the BBC, who collectively help perpetuate the use of obsolete imperial units for body weight.

It should of course be pointed out that for all official purposes, such as health, the recording of body weight switched to kilograms many years ago.

Mastermind – 2021

The fact that basic imperial conversion factors are deemed worthy of Mastermind questions proves that such knowledge is far from common. Contestants regularly struggle to answer relatively simple questions on measurement units:

2021-10-25

Host: What imperial unit of weight is roughly equivalent to 28.35 grams?
Contestant: A pound.
Host: No, an ounce.

2021-12-06

Host: In the standard abbreviations for units such as microgram and micrometre the prefix ‘micro’ is represented by which Greek letter?
Contestant: … Theta.
Host: No, mu.

Host: What imperial unit of weight is roughly equivalent to 453.6 grams?
Contestant: … A pound?
Host: Yes.

Christmas University Challenge – 2018-12-13

The following question was one in a whole round of questions on the subject of Fahrenheit. It should have been straight forward for anyone with a basic understanding of the scale:

JP: In the Fahrenheit scale, at standard atmospheric pressure, the interval between the freezing and boiling point of water is divided into how many degrees?
Peterhouse – Cambridge: 212, I think.
212.
JP: No, that was the boiling point.
It’s 32 to 212 – in other words 180.

The average age of the contestants in this celebrity alumni edition of University Challenge was over 60, thus putting paid to the long-running fallacy that weather forecasts need supplementary values in Fahrenheit for older people, which in itself contradicts the notion that British people understand both systems.

In conclusion, far from being our ‘superpower’, the failure of successive governments to complete our metrication programme continues to cause measurement to be our ‘Achilles’ heel’.

37 thoughts on “Does the UK’s mixed use of metric and imperial give us a unique ‘superpower’?”

  1. I agree absolutely with these sentiments. You haven’t even mentioned acres! Everyone “uses” them, but hardly anyone knows what they are except vaguely “as large as a sports field”. And how big is that exactly, I ask. The issue of how large is an acre that was raised as a rhetorical question by the old “Dr. Metric”, RIP. He was a school maths teacher and put forward the perfectly reasonable hypothesis that lack of use of the metric system, as happens amongst our schoolchildren, has led to their poor grasp of mental arithmetic. So we have both the older generation and the newer generation failing to understand either system with the clarity needed in modern society.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does the UK’s mixed use of metric and imperial give us a unique ‘superpower’?
    In a word NO!!
    It is just a perpetual drag on our country. A vast waste of time and very expensive to every one of us.
    If I were to take a guess it would be that any and all costs of full conversion would be repaid within a year or two.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I did a summer job in Germany in the 1960s it was explained that you could buy “half a pound” of butter in a shop and receive 250 grams. The old measures were understood but interpreted in the new system.

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  4. Peter, Why doesn’t the UK do what Germany and others did? I think the situation is the same in China. First, delegalise the imperial units. You don’t make them illegal, but you remove them from the list of units and thus giving them support. Then second, allow and encourage them to take on new values like a pound becoming 500 g and a yard becoming a metre. The pint would be exactly 570 mL and the ounce would be 30 mL and 30 g. This would only be in common speech, not for legal trade. This way there would be no need for imperial pricing. A pound of something would just be 5 X the 100 g price or 0.5 X the kilogram price?
    In Germany, the pfund is pretty much died out among the young, but even when it was in use in the last century as a slang term for 500 g, all of the scales would only display grams. The product was sold by the gram. It was a happy compromise between those who wanted a modern system and those that wanted to cling to tradition. What’s wrong with the English that this hasn’t been done already?

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  5. Yes, and they were quite happy serving beer and milk in half-litres. In UK, let the pound and yard fade away like the hogshead and bushel.

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  6. I can imagine the discussion becoming even more ludicrous, if Will had gone on to say how he had gained weight. Maybe something like this:

    WS: … Any way, I must have been getting through 40 ounces of ice cream each day …
    [Guests’ eyes glaze over again]
    GUEST 1: What’s that in litres?
    GUEST 2: Yeah, we have the metric system.
    WS: … You’re kidding me, right?

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  7. In the UK we don’t have so much a full mixture of metric and imperial units as a disparate assignment for different purposes. Nearly everything for sale in supermarkets is now in metric, but there has been little progress so far on road signage. To talk about the UK being bilingual would suggest using one language for shopping and another for travelling. Hardly a true bilingual arrangement.
     
    We in the UK have the advantage that our mother tongue is one of the widest-spoken languages in the world. We travel abroad hoping that foreigners will understand our language. Yet our road signage suggests a blatant denial of willingness to adopt a measurement system used by almost every country in the world.
     
    Regarding Daniel’s point (2021-12-21) about redefining imperial terms in round metric equivalents:
    This was common practice in the hardware and timber trade in the 1970s. Timber was sold in multiples of 300 mm, which is slightly less than a foot, so the idea of the “metric foot” was born. This caused many complaints and arguments from customers who thought they were being sold short measure. Eventually the traders deferred to customer demand; nowadays timber is sold described exclusively in exact metric measurements after any planing, etc.

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  8. @Peter Osborne
    After the Napoleonic Wars, the various states in Northern Germany set up a customs union called North German Confederation (Zollverein). In 1854 the states agreed to use a common unit of mass for inter-state trade. That unit was the Zollpfund (Custons [union] pound) which was defined to be 500 grams. In 1871, when the German Empire was set up, the newly-created state adopted the metric system the Zollpfund was theoretically no longer in use, though of course it lengered on in colloquial speech. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pound_(mass)#German_and_Austrian_Pfund or for those who can read German, see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfund for more details.

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  9. In 1902, most of the Empire wanted to move over to the metric system. Three years later, the Foreign Secretary polled the governors of the various parts of the ENpire to get their feeeling and ther answers that came back overwhelmingly comfirmed the desire for change. However, British industrials, in particular the Lancashire cotton indsutry, resisted the change because it removed one of the holds that they had over their customers. This lead to the 1907 bill being defeated.

    In 1850, over half the world’s pig iron was made in Britain, but by 1913 both Germany and Briatian had overtaken the British production and were making inroads into the British markets. In the case of the cotton industry, British production peaked during the run-up to the First World War. After the war, production slumped as Japan and other Far Eastern countries undercut British prices. The subsequent demise of these two industries made the 1907 rejection of the metric system self-defeating.

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  10. Metricmac,

    Treating 300 mm as a foot generating complaints and resulting in the term foot being dropped completely in the industry is a hoped after result. The result was a sooner than anticipated abandonment of the foot that otherwise may never have happened. But if such a similar situation had already happened in other countries it would then explain why these units disappeared quicker and only the pound remained.

    Maybe the pound remained because in the majority of cases, the 500 g value was more that the original and instead of short measure, one was getting a bonus. I would think that English shops would favour this change as it would allow them to move stock quicker increasing sales. There has to be a loss if you are purchasing from your supplier in kilograms and reselling in pounds.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Martin,

    I wonder what England and the Commonwealth countries would be like metric-wise if they had metricated around 1907. What would have happened post 1960 when SI was created? Would England and the Commonwealth to this day continued as Europe has into preserving cgs units and resisting the adoption of SI? Would the centimetre have more prominence in industry than the millimetre? Would the kilogram-force be the unit of weight and the “metric -horsepooper” be the preferred unit of power over the newton and watt?

    There are numerous complaints about the US refusal to go metric but much of the metric world still does not use SI. SI is incorrectly taught in the schools and the metric usage pretty much parallels imperial.

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  12. @Daniel
    Whether changing the UK definition of a pound to 500g would have made a difference in the switch to kilograms is a moot point, since the pound hasn’t been legal for trade now (other than as a supplementary indication) for nearly 22 years.
    Would it have stopped with the pound? Would a new stone be equal to 7 kg? How much would a new ounce be?
    Changing the definition of the pound was never really a practical possibility without virtually every household in the country changing their dual unit bathroom and kitchen scales.

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  13. Speaking of this particular subject, the Daily Telegraph has printed another fluff piece on behalf of some English sparkling wine producer, under the guise of being an article on return of sale of “pint” sized bottles, which are actually 500 ml – obviously the maker knows their home nostalgia market but still has a keen eye on export markets elsewhere.

    Quote as article behind a paywall (article here)

    The “modern pint” is fractionally smaller than its imperial cousin, holding 50cl. It has the benefit of being in common production among international glass manufacturers, while the imperial pint bottle has become a comparative rarity.

    So it is basically a marketing slogan, yet it’s being hailed as a push back agaisnt EU laws, even though it is compliant as it is being sold in 500 ml aliquots.

    Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. m,

    The reason I mention a redefinition of the pound is because the pound is still used in advertising. If it is redefined, it removes the need to use pounds in advertising, However, if shops continue to advertise in pounds, then the gram and kilogram price would be easy to calculate by either dividing by five or multiplying by two.

    As for road signs, the yard and metre are the same, so this redefinition has already happened. A redefinition of the mile would not be practical though, since speed and distance meters in vehicles are already calibrated to the present mile. A forced change in the automobile instrument panel would have to occur first.

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  15. John,

    A similar article on the same subject and company appeared in the fake media some years ago and typical of the fake media on the subject, the topic is being resurrected. Interesting though from your comment as I have mentioned in my own comments, is a redefinition of imperial terms such as a pound of 500 g for use in common speech. In your post you speak of the pint already being redefined as 500 mL and possibly the 570 mL size disappearing. Beers sold in bottles are already sold in 500 mL sizes., it’s just the glassware in pubs that isn’t.

    I believe that covid, with its closing of pubs, will help remove the 570 mL pint from usage more so than any EU regulation. Companies like Pol Roger may only be able to sell a 570 mL bottle in the English market and 500 mL elsewhere. The profits from having both sizes, one to a limited market reach will add costs to production and lower profits. Thus the 570 mL size will never happen and these companies will continue to market the already existing 500 mL size as a pint. The word pint will continue and may even expand, but in the real world it will become a slang term for 500 mL instead of the traditional 570 mL as it already has begun to.

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  16. Daniel,
    On the point of pint glasses in pubs, it appears more likely that Brexit will ensure that the pint glass remains. I have seen stories about the crown stamp now re-appearing on new glasses in place of the CE mark that was required until recently and I can’t really see a UK-based regulatory agency set up by a government hell bent on pushing ‘Britishness’ is going to move towards a rational metric unit any time soon. The only think we might hope for is that foreign manufacturers might make point of dropping any attempt to produce ‘imperial’ products for the UK market on items they know will sell here but that’s not going to have any impact on draught sales in pubs.
    As to road distances and speed limits, this has been a favourite gripe of mine for some time. Speedometers on UK cars are allowed by law to over-read by up to 10% at the time of manufacturing and on every new (or nearly new) car I’ve had in the last 20 years the manufacturer has clearly erred on the side of caution. While driving rented cars in the USA and Canada with a GPS-based speedometer on my phone the results always tally almost exactly with the speedometer in the car itself; on my British car (my current one, a 2017 Vauxhall Astra, assembled in Germany) to obtain an actual speed of 70 MPH (a reading of 112 km/h on my phone) the speedometer actually reads nearer 74 MPH (or 118 km/h if I use the digital display). Given the DfT tolerance of 10% for the spacing of signs and other such things I do believe a rounded metric mile of 1600 m would not cause any issues so far as distances are concerned. In fact I’ve noted in recent years that signs for junctions on major roads at distances of 1, ⅔, ½, ¼ and ⅓ mile are quite often near enough to 1600, 1000, 800, 600 and 400 metre intervals respectively that it makes little or no difference. The only factor that prevents them being changed to show metric distances is the arrogant insistence of using ‘m’ to mean miles on many of these signs which the DfT will likely continue to argue would cause confusion (though I think updating sign to read ‘800 m’ rather than ‘½ m’ would be quite clear to almost all intelligent folk).

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  17. Consider this:
    The 500 mL size is already legal for wine but it isn’t popular and most likely more expensive. The government doesn’t have to make any changes as the 500 mL size is already allowed, so it appears to me the industry is using the fake news media to drum up free advertisement to generate an interest in this size. Thus if there is an enough interest in producing more of the 500 mL size the hoped result will be an increase in sales and profits.
    This path has to be tread upon delicately as the 500 mL size will not be proportionately priced compared to the 750 mL size and thus more expensive and people will have to be willing to pay the price.
    500 mL for standard wine may not be profitable, but for sparkling wines it could be. An unfinished bottle of standard wine can be recorked and saved for another day and still retain its flavour, but sparkling wine looses it fizz once opened and needs to be drunk completely once the bottle is opened. Thus a reason to buy this size over the 750 mL and having to either drink all in one sitting or toss the remainder one can’t drink.

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  18. Here is an email I just sent to NASA:
    Dear NASA:
    Love the James Webb Space Telescope web site!
    However, the little button that lets you toggle between “miles” and “kilometers” should say “Miles km”.
    Currently, it says “Miles “Kms”, which is quite wrong.
    First, capital “K” is for absolute heat, i.e. degrees Kelvin (not the prefix “kilo”).
    Second, metric symbols never get an “s” at the end to make them plural (according to the official bodies that define how to use metric symbols).
    Please fix this straight away so we look to the rest of the world like we know what we are talking about! Thanks.
    P.S. If there are other web pages on the NASA web site with this or a similar issue, please ask your IT team to fix those as well.
    All the best,
    Ezra Steinberg
    Senior Technical Writer
    Google LLC

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  19. Further to the recent hysteria generated by certain news organisations about the return of “pints” of champagne, the sparkling wine producer at the centre of all the fuss has a blog post confirming that they are using 500 mL bottles (not 568 mL).

    https://rathfinnyestate.com/about/news/the-pint-bottle-is-the-perfect-measure/

    “… in 2015 we made the decision to produce 800 bottles of our Blanc de Noirs in a ‘Modern Pint’ 50cl bottle. We had to search the continent for the bottle, but eventually found a bottle manufacturer in France who produced a 50cl sparkling wine bottle.”

    “… Bizarrely you can sell still and fortified wines in 50cl bottles but not sparkling wine.”

    “… Whilst the standard bottle contains roughly six glasses, a ‘Modern Pint’ (50cl) has four, so it’s ideal to share.”

    “… Warwick Cairns, a spokesman for the Imperial Weights and Measures Association which is campaigning for the return of imperial measures, said it would be a victory for common sense.”

    Good to see that the “Imperial Weights and Measures Association” is backing the use of 500 mL bottles. Perhaps they will support the adoption of the modern 500 mL pint for draught beer too.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Ezra, well done! NASA have changed the label to “EnglishMetric”. Probably even worse, but that is where we are.

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  21. m,

    From the article you posted there is another comment as to why the 570 mL pint will never happen. That is the 570 bottles needs to be able to withstand 600 kPa pressure and for some reason a 570 mL bottle can’t. The 500 mL bottles can. If the 500 mL bottle becomes a success, no one in the future will waste the time and money to try to develop a 570 mL bottle. Simply because such a size if made legal, will only be legal in England and no where else. So the industry would have to market two sizes, a 500 mL size for the world and a 570 mL bottle for England with no guarantee of improved sales but an assured loss of profits in having to maintain two different sizes. To be profitable, a 570 mL bottle would have to be priced close to a 750 mL bottle. If that is the case it would be best to buy the 750 mL size and toss what one can’t drink and goes flat.

    I think once these bottles become the norm, everyone will get use to them and will have no problem referring to them as a pint and even think of them as a pint even though they are 500 mL and not 570 mL.

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  22. @BrianAC
    So glad to see the NASA web site team responded so quickly.
    The other thing I follow up on most of the time is when I see a web site or YouTube video that uses “angstrom” or “micron” by reminding the author or presenter of the correct SI unit and submultiple to use. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But we persist! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. It seems they (NASA) added a temperature scale, but with a display to two decimal places. I wonder if the thermometers on the telescope are that precise to warrant the having two decimal places.

    Then to make it really questionable, in the foreignheat display the decimal values are always zero and only in the degrees Celsius display are these values other than zero. How is this possible? I would think that the degrees Celsius is the actual measured temperature and foreignheat units would come about as a result of a conversion.

    This needs to be questioned.

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  24. So the UK will have two different definitions of a pint. Is that correct? 50 cl for champagne and 570 ml for beer?

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  25. metricnow,

    Don’t they already? 570 mL for beer in a pub in a glass and 500 mL for beer in a bottle? The question is, are more beverages sold in 500 mL pints or 570 mL pints?

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  26. But then we have the US pint of 473 and the UK supermarket can apparently of 440 ml., and the ubiquitous US fl. oz. in coffee houses.
    The pint has no meaning in the UK, lets keep it that way. It has no legal status, it has no in-use ‘standard’ apart from supermarket cows milk. I doubt if many in UK would have any idea what it should be anyway.
    Smoke and mirrors nothing more. If it keeps a few luddites happy then let them have their day.

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  27. We’re essentially concerned here with measurements in the UK. We all know that the US version of pint and some other measures are different from the UK ones. The pint is spelt out as the required measure for draught beer and cider and for doorstep milk in returnable bottles in this legislation:
    https://www.gov.uk/weights-measures-and-packaging-the-law
    but the legislation does not specify what a pint actually is, either as an imperial definition or a metric one. I suppose the only benchmark to measure it is the marking on a ‘pint’ glass. All other uses of pint for sparking wine or beer in smaller bottles or cans must surely fall foul of the definition of pint as the measure to be used for draught beer/cider and doorstep milk.

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  28. Martin,

    Is there a reason why England is alone in the Commonwealth of defining a pint as 0.568 261 25 cubic decimetre where everyone else defines it as 570 mL, only to be used in the sale of beer in pubs? What type of problems/conflicts and/or confusion results when in one place it is 570 mL and somewhere else it is 568.26 mL?

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  29. Daniel, unless I am mistaken, the pint is only 570 ml when it is beer or cider served on draught. In that case the glass is marked pint at a fill level of 570 ml. I wonder what the pint delivered to the doorstep in a reusable bottle contains? The same?

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  30. Daniel,

    Since the pint is only used for dispensing beer or cider, it is unlikely that the difference will cause any problems. Lets put things into perspective. If the line in the pint tankard is 100 mm above the bottom of the glass, then each millimetre of line will represent 5 ml of beer/cider. The line itself is often one millimetre thick, so the difference between the difference pints is less than the thickness of the line and very few publicans take much notice whether they are filling to the bottom of the line or the top of the line.

    Also, the price of a drink in most pubs is a multiple of 10p, and if a pint of beer/cider costs £3, the diffrence in price resulting form the difference in definitions is about 1p which will not excite anmybody, not even the taxman.

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  31. Metricnow,

    All filling machines worldwide are metric, even if they fill FFU amounts. But, their limit is to 5 mL or 5 g. So, the pint bottle tot he door step can not be 568 mL, it would have to be 570 mL minimum. It seems there is a big disconnect between those who work in industry and fill bottles and containers and those who make rules. Obviously the rule makers don’t know what goes on in the filling factories or else they would tailor laws to the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. @Daniel:
    Assuming that the United Kingdom follows the recommended regulations published by the International Organisation for Legal Metrology (OIML) as laid out in https://www.oiml.org/en/files/pdf_r/r138-e07.pdf and takes advantage of the exemptions allowed in paragraph 4.1.3, then under para 5.1.1 the maximum permissable error for a pint glass will be ±18 mL. If the manufacturers ensure that the error is always less than ±16 mL, then both the 568 mL and 570 mL definitions of the pint can be honoured by the same glass.

    BTW, many EU regulations concerned with metrology are copies of OIML recommendations.

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