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Episode 2013: the imperial system strikes back

Small boy with a measuring tape and pencil

The imperial measurement system is not just still alive – it may be staging a comeback, according to reports. Should school children be taught to use both imperial and metric measurements?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is apparently making plans to reintroduce the teaching of imperial units in schools. The draft curriculum for England is set to teach pupils how to convert between imperial and metric

I can see some logic for doing this in maths classes; the interview for my first job in a DIY chain had questions on converting feet into centimetres. My customers were a real mix of imperial and metric users, but I don’t recall imperial being taught at school. My knowledge was probably more down to my ruler using both measurements – it was a 12″ one with a rather odd 31cm on the other side.

So, should we just ditch imperial and spend time teaching kids about something else? JD Baines told us on our last imperial vs metric debate:

‘Few teachers now understand imperial, whereas in schools in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s decimal was taught in schools alongside imperial. One was taught the conversion factors as well, which were “simplified” on the official decimalisation on the UK – thus one could not go to a timber yard and get 50mm x 100mm – it was still 2″×4″. (50mm x 100mm is actually smaller!).’

Wavechange offered an alternative solution:

‘I am happy for kids to learn about imperial measures – but it should be in history classes.’

Your thoughts on the imperial march

When we last had a conversation about measurement systems, almost half of the voters in our poll thought we should ditch imperial units altogether, while a third thought we should keep our current mix. Over a fifth preferred a return to imperial. Some of the comments showed hard lines on the debate. Seares was ready to go metric; ‘It’s about bloody time.’

While David Ramsay spoke for imperial users:

‘NOOOOOOOOOO. I will refuse to use anything other than imperial and will ask for all purchases to be measured accordingly.’

John Knox was equally emphatic:

‘Imperial all the way! I still do everything pretty much in imperial. You know that the jars of jam and honey, etc. you buy are a pound in weight in the supermarket despite them putting the diabolical French measurements on instead.

‘A pint of milk is still a pint of milk and same for beer! We also know our quarter-pounder and half-pounder burgers!’

Popular abroad, the metric system is

The UK is not the only place to have converted from imperial to metric. Michael Glass offered a viewpoint from a country far, far away:

‘As an Australian I find all this angst about metrication quite appalling. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and a whole lot of other countries changed without all this fuss and bother.’

Seares thinks we should go Dutch:

‘I’m in Holland – there doesn’t seem to be any problem here with metric, and they still have their own culture (and cheese). Why would we alone in our island lose our ‘nationality’ or ‘history’ or whatever if we used the system most other countries do?’

Finally, Swanseasteve pointed out that Sandringham listed its size in hectares:

‘If metric values are good enough for the Queen they’re good enough for us!’

What are your thoughts? Is the proposed move to teach imperial putting the best foot forward or taking us back by miles?

Should imperial measurements be taught in schools?

No, it's time to go fully metric (51%, 287 Votes)

Yes, they are helpful for daily life (38%, 215 Votes)

Only if they are taught in history lessons (11%, 60 Votes)

Total Voters: 566

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Cliff says:
24 January 2013

Re swanseasteve’s very polite response to Jraf.
I totally agree with swanseasteve and would like to add a little.
Jraf, the reason that all those imperial measurements are still used in Britain, even by young people, is because of the botched way the changeover to SI units of measurement was handled by the government way back in 1965. The changeover should have been mandatory as it was in all the Commonwealth countries. People in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa very rarely use non metric measurement because their governments did the job of changing over in a proper way rather than the laissez faire way it was handled in Britain. People will continue doing things in the same old way they have always done them unless they are forced, or at least encouraged to change. I used to use a drawing board for my work as an architectural technician until I was forced to use a computer. I didn’t like it at first but now I would never dream of going back to the board.The government in the UK does nothing, and has never done anything to encourage the people to use the metric system and the media is positively hostile to it. Is it any wonder that it isn’t used more?Take a look at any of the tabloid newspapers and see how seldom metric units are used. The Daily Mail owns the Evening Standard and LBC radio and push anti metric propaganda to the masses both insidiously and blatantly. Insidiously by giving measurements only in imperial and blatantly by anti-metric editorials by right-wing journalists.
The Republic of Ireland, which was mentioned, has at least had the sense and courage to change over to metric road signs. The US and Britain will always influence Irish culture due to the common language of English so it isn’t surprising that many people there still use old measurements but the government has done the right thing and the people will eventually reap the rewards of a working knowledge of a system used throughout the world. Something denied to the people of the UK.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

Can’t you survive without the government telling you to do what to do? The state (as in govt, not ‘condition’!) of the UK is that they metricated a load of things but they forgot to metricate the people!
The only real govt I have enjoyed is Thatcher’s – giving power back to people/share owners. Ironically it was her govt that made the pumps at petrol stations show ‘litre’. A great way of making people see, synthetically, good numbers (monetarily). You mention LBC – listen to their ‘every 15 minute’ news+weather. Not a fahrenheit insight! (not popular during summer) The BBC radio still use F though. No political manifesto mentioned anything about metricating people (perhaps UKIP mentioned the reverse) Anyway we voted in governments that manifesto’s didn’t mention. So who caused this anti-metric situation. No guesses! The popularity of metric has changed over the years – from nearly 40% approval to today’s 3% (depending on which independent poll you follow). You would find the pushing of metric in 2000 was deeply unpopular. If they tried to metricate the people then thats one way off becoming ‘also ran’ at the elections. Interestingly it is the teen-to-twenties that show the biggest anti-metric feeling. This may be due to an EU diktat – even if it was our govt that signed something in the EU bloc. But back to my main argument – why do you need a govt to force you to use different numbers and different words to replace a long history of imperial usage? Surely (using market principles) metric would sell itself and people would move over to metric due to it being popular? Better? And please don’t blame papers and news casters – you’re basically saying that Brits can’t think for themselves.

I am a little flummoxed by the passionate nature of the thread which is becoming a molehill of immense proportions. The country is inexorably becoming metric and at some not too distant point the pound will become 454g and a pint will become 0.568 of a litre. The French still talk of poids as do many other metric countries where historical names have been applied to the new measure.

The argument about what did and did not happen in the 1960’s neatly avoids the point about who was the primary trade partner for the UK in the 1960’s – it was the USA. However there is little to gain from looking back and perhaps we might more usefully start planning for a significant date for re-sizing our measures. I would suggest 2020 as it seems both divisible by 10 and shows good vision. : )

“The country is inexorably becoming metric and at some not too distant point the pound will become 454g and a pint will become 0.568 of a litre.” – er, I think you’ll find that that’s the case right now, DieselTaylor.

What we need is that, at not too distant a point in the future, the pound will become 500g and a pint will become 0.5 of a litre.

I think its probable that eventually the Imperial pound will become 500 grams similar to the French livre and the German pfund.

Also I would like to think, that the Impeial pint for both beer and milk, would eventually become 500 mL. Although I guess that many beer drinkers would say that they are being short changed.

I think the protection on the beer pint should be removed, and 500 mL and 600 mL glasses be allowed to be used along with the pint. More selection for the customer.

WJG: The ‘imperial pint’ can’t be redefined without causing future archaeologists a mighty bother. It was introduced in 1826 with its value of pretty much 568mL (as we’d express it nowadays). It can’t be retro-changed!

What we could do with is for the Weights and Measures act to abolish the imperial pint and imperial (avoirdupois) pound. Historians and archaeologists would still need to be able to handle those units, but the rest of us need not. However, since no-one wants to have to order a “500ml” or “an ‘arf a litre” of beer, we would do exactly what the continentals have done and adopt a “British customary pint” of 500mL for that purpose. However, with the old imperial pint still on the statute books for beer and doorstep milk, we can’t do that.

However, after such changes we could still “go for a pint” but this time expect to know what we’re being served with. As the law on beer sales stands, we can legally be undersold beer to an unspecified degree because successive governments have shirked the issue time and time again.

So we’ve got this ludicrous situation where beer may be (and often is) sold in “rim fill measures” which are legally allowed to be underfilled to allow the beer to have a “head”. An undercover survey by the O.F.T back in 2001 or thereabouts discovered that in some chains of pubs, customers were getting less than 500mL of beer sold as “a pint” by abuse of this system.

Now “Which?” magazine: as champions of customer rights as you are, why have you not noticeably raised this issue? Notice how the whole issue could be cleared up nearly overnight by de-legalising the imperial pint, meaning that glass-making plants currently making rim-fill 568mL glasses could continue to use their expensive tooling, but would have to mark a line at 500mL to remain legal.

We the customer would get to drink an actual, legally-binding 500mL ‘pint’ of fluid regardless of if it came out of a bottle or was on draught, and there would be room for a ‘head’. Everyone wins.

The current “great British pint” is a myth. It ought to be retitled the “great British legalised pub ripoff” until it is fixed.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

Are you really suggesting that people get emotional about the terms used when measuring system?

Hatred due to how long things are, what they weigh etc?

2 chaps in New Zealand watching a cricket match (based on imperial)

1: I got 2 tickets to Great Britain
2: When are you going?
1: I’m not going because I’ll see a ’30’ in a red circle and it will be non-metric.
2: picks up his pint of lager and slowly backs away

Stimpy.. You are misinformed if you think that Cricket when played in New Zealand uses Imperial units of measurements. Although the original laws used Imperial measures, the laws of the modern game allow metric conversions. For example in NZ, Australia, South Africa, and India, the pitch length is 2012 cm, the pitch width is 305 cm and bowling ball speeds are measured and displayed on TV in km/h. When the batsman hits a four or a six the the TV on screen graphics will diplay the length in metres.
Oh.. and in NZ and also Australia, you wont find a 568 mL beer pint. In NZ they have what they call a handle ..425 mL.

Much easier to remember the pitch size is 22 yards x 10 feet. If they had metricated the cricket wicket it would have been much more sensible to have it 20 metres x 3 metres?. A metric run would then be 0.5% shorter.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

So what replaces the 35 yard line (25 yd in Women’s cricket)?
I was watching the match against NZ (ENG v NZ) and the feed was NZ. They mentioned the 35 yard area as well as inches and feet (colloquially, I admit).
Your translations show quite perfectly which system the game is made in and I thank you for it.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

I bet they do have 568ml glasses of beer (a real Pint) when pushing a new product such as “English Old Cider” or something similar, just for marketing fun.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

Sorry, but that would always be rejected (by people, not govt)


: (

Actually, dieseltaylor, I thought you had made a very valid point, until your latest Homer-style retraction. Currently, the pound is not exactly 454g and the pint is not exactly 568ml. I thought you were saying that one day these units will be redefined as exactly those metric equivalents, just as the inch was redefined in 1959 to be exactly 2.54mm for the sake of easy conversion.

Err, of course I meant 25.4mm or 2.45cm.

Clint – Oh, dear. Pity there is not an editing facility. We know what you mean. 🙂

One of the strengths of the metric system was thought to be the ease in converting between units. (!)

Metrication of road signs is still outstanding. I expect this has been mentioned elsewhere. The last cost contingency set aside for this conversion by DfT I can see was in 2008-9 – £746 million. In view of the current pressure on spending, is this an appropriate time to be considering this? How many of us would bother if journey distances continued to be expressed in miles, and speed limits in miles/hour. I wonder what the impact on speeding fines and points would be if we changed to km/h while drivers reaccustomed themselves to the new numbers?

If you do the sums you discover that the DfT’s estimate was a ridiculous worst-case possible scenario basically assuming that *every* road sign bearing a distance or speed would have to be physically replaced with a brand new sign, on a brand new pole. The cynic in me says that DfT’s brief was “make this estimate as expensive as possible so we’ve got an excuse for not doing it”

In fact most signs would just get retroreflective vinyl patches stuck on them to fix the numbers displayed. Councils amend signs like this all the time, it’s old tech, inexpensive and easy to do. Take a look on your drive home tonight, you’ll probably see several patched signs.

Metricating the UK’s roads would actually cost £75 million tops. Small change in the DfT’s budget, and you could do it cheaper if you allow the distance signs (which are non-critical) to be changed over a period of several years. Speed signs would have to be done close to overnight (probably over a well-advertised weekend in practice).

As for the speeding fines etc, Ireland showed the way on this 15 years ago. As far as I know there was no noticeable increase in speed-related offences (why would there be?) and no identifiable accidents. The Luddites over here always claim that there would be carnage, but there just wouldn’t be.

Alex B says:
25 January 2013

I agree with swanseasteve… the changeovers in other countries have proven that it would not cost anywhere near as much nor would there be any carnage whatsoever.

The path to changeover of everything except speed limits is actually simple and cheap. Road signs don’t actually last very long and the vast majority of them could be replaced, if planned properly, over a 10 year period with little cost over that of planned maintenance. The number of signs showing actual distance has reduced over the years with “finger posts” usually no longer showing distances which in itself will have reduced the overall cost.

Actually, speed limit signs do not specify units, so there would be no need to change them.

Since most drivers seem to think (and I use the word ironically, here) there is nothing wrong with driving at 45 mph in a 30 mph zone (about 50% over the statutory limit), just leave the “Circle-30” signs as they are. A 30 (kph) sign +50% = 45 kph = 28 mph. Perfect!

Cyprus changed over from miles to km relatively recently (I think it was late 80s or early 90s). There was virtually no problem and no public resistance regarding road signs. They just phased it in over a couple of years. In the first year, they passed a temporary law stating that speed limit signs are to be interpreted as mph if only one figure is given, and as kph on top and mph at the bottom if two figures are shown (separated by a thin horizontal line). Same for miles and km for distances in signposts. During the second year, and by then all speed limit signs had been replaced, the temporary law was replaced by one that said speed limits are to be interpreted as kph if only one figure was shown. They then started gradually replacing signs to show only kph. Simples!

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

“Metricating the UK’s roads would actually cost £75 million tops. Small change in the DfT’s budget, and you could do it cheaper if you allow the distance signs”

But NO-ONE is asking for it! A poll showed 3% favour in changing roadsigns to say a different number. Using rounding – it seams that only protestors and imperial haters would want this.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

@swanseasteve. The variable speed limit signs cannot show more than 99 – Look at the matrix lamps (safely) to see.

Just a little ribbing – have you ever thought of consultation with road users whether they want it to change name/number?

Who cares what the *road users* want? They are the last people to ask! The point is what the *country* needs in order to move forward at a better pace than our competitors. For that we need a population well versed in the measurements needed for us to be making and selling stuff abroad, designing stuff for people, making money from real innovation like we used to do in the “good ol’ days”.

To road users, signs are just signs with numbers on them. They don’t care what the numbers mean. The numbers only matter because they propagate a sense of “how to measure” into the minds of the people. If you want to know what the signs should say on the roads, go ask a class of 6-year olds in school if roadsigns ought to measure distances the same way as everything else is measured. You’d get a chorus of “D’uh – of course!” from them.

Stimpy says:
25 March 2013

I think I would care what the road users would think. Conversion in other countries have been to nations of a few million – here, the UK, have 60 m.

I would agree that selling to the word (around half our exports go to the Americas) woud be best served in metric – or metric/imperial,

By real thoughts are – what happens to our international dealings and sales to other countries when Mrs Mary Hinge asks for a pound of apples from a store? Would it affect our GDP? Similarly with day to day imperial usage as part of our languages.

I can assure you ‘what the numbers say’ IS important. A man driving through a small village while a a school day ends driving at 50 gives you a very quick ‘feeling/judgement’ of what that must have looked like and the suitability of ’50’. There are loads of other examples too.

Actually – it’s a sore subject – I had to go to court for doing 100 down a very dry,sunny, empty, M40 at 100 mph – by a bl**dy bridge van/cam. “Yes your honour” and all that.

whiffwhaff says:
25 January 2013

There is a very good reason for retention of imperial, used together with metric, that has been overlooked. Mental arithmetic.

Have you noticed how young ( and not-so-young) people have difficulty adding up their shopping bil. I think that a dual system will force people to use their heads,

Alex B says:
25 January 2013

Oh please not this again… there are many countries that use metric exclusively who’s schoold always score highly in international league tables of maths abilities, being able to work out how many square inches are in half an acre has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to do mental arithmetic, that problem is more related to teaching methods used and possibly even the time wasted on having to teach an archaic system of measurement.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

Why would anyone want to know or ask a question about how many inches in half an acre etc.
Turn it around – in a metric country – ‘Wow! I just got home from work in 30 minutes today’
Other person ‘Wow! What max speed did you get to?”
First person: “It must have been about 140 km/h!”
Other person “Please can you express that using centimetres?”
First person “D*ck head’ and moves away.

On a pure technicality, thousands of road signs fail to meet EU regulations (directive 80/181/EEC which are based on ISO-31) and whose validity could therefore be called into question. The symbol “m” is used to represent “miles” – according to international convention, “m” is the symbol for “metres” – both ISO-31 and the EU specify that “mile” should be used. Likewise single and double apostrophes are used to denote “feet” and ”inches” – the correct symbols being “ft” and “in” – single and double apostrophes are the internationally agreed symbols for minutes and seconds of arc. To give the government credit, they have recently amended legislation to use “t” to represent “tonnes” on road signs – previously “T”, the internationally recognised symbol for teslas (a measure of the strength of a magnetic field) was used.

Alex B says:
25 January 2013

We should be clear that the need for metrication is not an EU issue… the incorrect symbols used on road signs are in violation of any number of international treaties and standards.

Road signs are slowly moving in the right direction however it tool 2 changes in road signs legislation to move from “T” to “t’ (the first merely authorised it as an option).


Though I have corrected many scientific reports, draft theses and paper manuscripts using incorrect abbreviations, and know that some regard me as a pedant, I try to avoid worrying about such matters in general discussion. Is anyone going to confuse miles with metres in the context of road signs? Perhaps we should worry about something important. 🙂

I am happy with distances shown without units on road signs, because of the limited space available and need for large text. I would not accept numbers without units in other contexts.

Alex B says:
25 January 2013

It’s not the fact of confusing miles for metres on roadsigns that is an issue per se, but one excuse for adding to the cost/complication to converting road signs is the fact that if you have one sign that says “Road Works 500 m” near a sign indicating the next junction is “1 m” away some claim this will cause confusion (and carnage?)

In reality there are probably very few signs outside the motorway network that use “m” to denote miles and it would probably be quite quick and easy to either replace “m” with “mi” or just change them all to metric without an intermediate change!

It’s amazing how many silly reasons people keep coming up with for not finishing the job properly. The roads are the only major thing outstanding and are probably the single reason why imperial measures continue to be used in everyday speech (and hence are carried forward for future generations to suffer).

Has anyone ever been confused by this and successfully pursued a claim?

I think we are agreed on completing the job of metrication. It not cost as much if we just amend the text. That provides a durable solution and one that has already been used to amend road signs.

Speed limits shown in mph could be misinterpreted as kph, which seems far more likely than confusing metres and miles.

(This is inspired by Em’s comment above.)

Misinterpreting road speed limit signs that are mph for signs that are km/h would make a driver drive slowly.
Misinterpreting road speed limit sisgns that are km/h for signs that are mph would make a driver drive faster.

However there are three factors that should prevent this..
1) The signs that are km/h will have km/h on the signs.
2) A nationwide public education program for road users showing the Imperial to metric conversions for the most common speeds.
3) As part of the public education program for road users, a statement that there will be very little change in the actual speeds for the speed limits, and that only the way in which the speeds are recorded is changing. For example 50 mph becomes 80 km/h with almost no change in speed.
I am sure that the road signs will eventually be metricated, but unfortunately it wont happen anytime soon.

Your mention of a public education programme has reminded me that I can still remember some of the helpful advice we were given when metrication was started.

Two and a quarter pounds of jam weigh about a kilogram.
A litre of water’s a pint and three quarters.

Maybe Which? could run a competition for memorable ditties to help familiarise us with speed conversion some government or other decides to make the momentous move towards metrication.

And how could I forget:

A metre measures three foot three. It’s longer than a yard, you see.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013


“In reality there are probably very few signs outside the motorway network that use “m” to denote miles ”

This is true – but to avoid confusion to foreign readers it’s important to say that we use yds for certain things but road signs pointing to a city, town, tourist trap, etc do not mention a unit. e.g. “Marlow 3 then underneath Bourne End 5” . Yes it looks like a football score! However it’s to point out that what you said is true but I thought I would clarify just in case

As has been mentioned, we converted over to Metric in 1967 back in New Zealand and don’t have any problems. They did teach us how to convert Imperial measurements, but we didn’t spend too long on it.
I used to work in education here in Britain and I can honestly say, that Michael Gove’s plan is absolutely ridiculous (one of many!). We have enough trouble trying to teach kids the basics these days with all the planning and other nonsense that teachers have to do without adding to that workload by having essentially to have to teach them 2 incompatible measuring systems and how to convert them. Many teachers don’t know Imperial measures anymore. Many workers also come from overseas. You’d have to retrain all staff in schools! This would be confusing for the kids too. We’ve got kids struggling with even basic reading and writing skills when they leave primary school, we don’t need to add this nonsense to the situation.

As for tradition, ever since I came to England 7 years ago I have had any suggestion I’ve made on ways to improve things met with fierce and irrational resistance. Surely, people can see the benefit of establishing one logical system in this country, and one which will be the same no matter where you go in the world? I sell stuff online now, and it sure would be nice not to have to post measurements of everything in both inches and cms, just because some people are too lazy to bother converting them.

Comments like some of the above about a pound of jam and a quarter-pounder hamburger highlight how this flimsy argument is merely disguising a refusal to move forward with the times lest the change be seen as an attack on the way people have been living. A ‘quarter-pounder’ to me is just a name of a product. I never actually think to myself, that it is a measure of the amount of meat I’ll be getting.

The only area I’d find the change noticeable in, would be with measurements of the body such as height and with clothes as the feet and inches thing is so ingrained still, both for customers and for manufacturers.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

Rex – I hope you are joking regarding teachers and imperial measures (well the ones who drive to work!)

Seares says:
17 February 2013

This thread is supposed to be about teaching two systems of measurement in schools, but it is just re-hashing what has been said in the previous forum from which it was hatched. At school over 65 years ago we used metric flasks in chemistry and were whacked with a metre rule. I easily learnt what a metre looked like. Are we to assume that our esteemed minister of education wishes to whack kids with a yard rule (not quite as long) and have 1/2 pint chemical conical flasks? In this country we seemed determined to go back in time rather than get fit for the future. No wonder the rest of the world pities us.

Absolutely. Another problem is that we don’t produce enough scientists.

Nor do we produce enough engineers. My impression is that we value sales and marketing roles too much, whereas the innovators are in the shadows. It is their own fault perhaps in that they may see the rewards of their work as being as important as money – and innovation is very rewarding. Nor are they represented in Government, who do not seem to recognise that an economy based on production is needed alongside the service sector. Perhaps scientisits and engineers in general are too introvert to sell themselves and their professions.

Reading “The Engineer” I seem to recall that there is a feeling that in the English language there is no distinction obvious from engineer[sanitary] to engineer [ as in seriously smart] This is the reverse to Germany where they do make distinctions about these matters. German politicians seem very keen to have doctorates etc : )

The argument, which I agree with, is that distinction should be made. I also think that Engineers need to use their membership qualifications after their name. This is actually a reaction of mine to the devaluing of all degrees by making them achievable by nearly 50% of the population. There is no parity between a degree in media studies[!] and a practical discipline.

I do agree with Malcolm that scientists and engineers are too introverted. Scientists even have a reputation as being poor at communication with the general public. There are some high profile scientists in the media but they are the exception. Unfortunately, we have a few scientists who misuse science, often to make a profit. Those who sell unnecessary nutritional supplements are an example.

Like Dieseltaylor, I am dismayed by the term ‘engineer’, which is a worthless term unless properly defined. However, listing qualifications is a very sad thing to do. It reminds me of scientists who have failed to get a decent job and ended up selling general lab supplies. Their business cards read something like Dr Fred Failure, BSc, MSc, PhD.

A retired (mechanical) engineer friend is building a boat and has various people, including me, are helping him with the job. I have noticed that while we use metric, he uses imperial units when in conversation with a couple of helpers. The reason given is that they are old blokes who find it easier to work in feet and inches, etc. It’s best to keep your helpers happy and to avoid mistakes.

Peter Hargreaves says:
3 March 2013

Speaking to engineers and those in the science industries they tell me that they don’t bother with the centimetre, certainly in the paper industry the sizes are strictly millimetres. The problem now is that if you try and apply this to the natural world and leisure pursuits, there is no discernible breakdown in measurement from the millimetre to the metre. Even with the centimetre there is too wider gap. In other words there is no foot or inch to fill the gap. It’s all about been able to visualize a measurement quickly. The problem with the argument about opting for one measurement system over another, is that it relies on the assumption that accuracy is required. In reality, most circumstances can be satisfied by approximations and people will choose a measurement that suits them. The keywords here are metric equals precision and imperial equals approximation. In other words one glove will not fit all. If most of the European communities can speak another language and put the British to shame, then I am sure the British people can learn to understand two systems of measurement. A ruler has two sides children will learn to use either one or both depending on the career paths and hobbies they pursue in life.

Excellent observation.There is a danger of spurious accuracy, or should I say great accuracy but little sense in quoting the smaller units. I daresay we may reach the stage of saying half a metre or a third of a metre for approximations eventually.

However the simplicity where everyone already carries around an approximate ruler – a hand, a foot, two fingers etc should not be discounted. And yes I appreciate that these members differ from person to person but as an approximation wonderfully simple.

Oh, come on! Rubbish observation.

Yes indeed, engineers use millimetres for everything. They need the accuracy, and even if they don’t, it’s standard engineering practice to use millimetres-only just to avoid a possible cockup with a missed decimal point. For day-to-day use of metric without that level of accuracy people use centimetres. In theory, for even rougher use, you could use decimetres but I’ve never heard anyone really do that.

By all means use bits of your body for measuring things, but report it to others using centimetres or metres or whatever’s appropriate. For me, a handwidth is 10cm, a span of my hand is 22cm, my knee height is about half a metre. I use these all the time for approximates. But I don’t report them in such terms.

And Peter (above). Why do you and the other Imperial system fans seem to continue to believe that a measurement system used as the sole measurement system by 95% of the world’s population is somehow “unfit for use” just because it lacks a unit the size of a foot or an inch?? I guestimate stuff in half-metres or quarter metres all the time, and if I’m not being fussy, round off smaller dimensions to the nearest 5 or even 10cm. These achieve the same ends as your inches and feet, but using the system that everyone else uses – not just you old diehard Brits and most of the American public.

If we’re to get out of this recession, like David Cameron said (and I rarely agree with *his* sentiments!) we need to be building and selling stuff to the world again. Like we used to do, only this time it needs to be engineered in metric because that’s what everyone uses in the markets we’re targeting. To do that reliably we need a workforce (i.e. a public) who use that system, everyday, 100% of the time without being held back by you Luddites muddying the waters with your tired old measuring sticks.

The alternative is that British manufacturing draws its workforce only from our foreign immigrant communities. I can imagine the furoré that would break out in the Daily Depress should *that* happen!

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

@swanseasteve Do you have some form of proof that DC (Cameron) said such an anti-imperial quote? He is to the very right of the Conservatives. He is known for preserving and using imperial within the nation.

Alex says:
16 March 2013

The imperial system is one of the most anoying things about living in the uk it is like a poltergeist on British socity .It makes the UK look arrogant and old fashioned and it is one on the main resons why Britian is hated arround the world .Other country that went metric about the same time as Britian like Australia,South Africa and New Zealand have a whole metricaly minded population who weigh themselves in kilograms measure themselves in metres and work how far they travel in kilometres and are more successful because of it .Britian went metric in 1965 and the uk is about 90% there yet when people from everywhere apart from 3 countries (who are moving even closer to metric) they see roadsigns in miles, people weighing themselves in stones and pounds and measuring themselves in feet and inches they think Britian is a nation of old empire lusters not the modern country that most resonable people in the uk want. It is a shame it could not be done in the 1960s/70s or even in time for the olympics.

Please sign the petition to get road signs change from imperial to metric to finaly move britian in the 20th century http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/46833

You need to have your facts right if you want to encourage us to complete metrication, Alex. Britain did not ‘go metric’ in 1965. If you mean that this is when we started, then it would be good to say that.

You may believe that Britain is hated around the world, but many would disagree and I just don’t see any point in making this provocative comment.

You have the option of moving to a less hated metric country – although I doubt most Britons would agree with your characterisation. I’m very happy to avoid the cost of changing road signs – much better things to do with taxpayers’ money at the moment.

dieseltaylor says:
17 March 2013


For someone wishing to enlist support your post is actually somewhat antagonistic in suggesting that the UK is hated. I went to many countries last year and I must say the way we can measure in two different systems did not seem high on anyones radar. No one mentioned it all in fact and I doubt the vast majority of the world actually realises we are not totally metric.

I await a petition next telling us that incorrect spelling is also annoying and that we all ought to spell the Queens English the same way – for greater accuracy.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

Are you really suggesting that people get emotional about the terms used when measuring system?

Hatred due to how long things are, what they weigh etc?

2 chaps in New Zealand watching a cricket match (based on imperial)

1: I got 2 tickets to Great Britain
2: When are you going?
1: I’m not going because I’ll see a ’30’ in a red circle and it will be non-metric.

Cliff says:
22 March 2013

To Stimpy:
2 chaps in New Zealand watching a cricket match (based on imperial)
They’re movers and shakers in the New Zealand government.
1. I was thinking of going to Britain to scout for an engineering company to design and build a new metro system for Auckland.
2. Forget it. See that road sign with ’30’ in the red circle on TV? It doesn’t mean 30 km/h speed limit like it does everywhere else in the world. The people over there are so primitive that that sign is actually based on something to do with how far Roman Centurions marched 2000 years ago. They have other signs based on some ancient king’s body parts! And the big measurement is divided up into 5280 small body parts or 1760 big body parts! Do you seriously imagine that they’re capable of designing and building a cutting-edge metro system for our city?
Look to somewhere where you’ll get the job done efficiently without all those mumbo jumbo primitive hang-ups. Go somewhere more in touch with the twenty first century like Germany, Italy or the Netherlands.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

Back to cliff (tennis argument!)
I was making light of the argument rather than accusations or insults. I was belittling the idea of people not going to the UK due to lack of metric numbers and different unit names. Now check which city in Europe has the second most visitors in Europe.

Cliff says:
23 March 2013

My sources indicate that London is the most visited city in Europe and Paris is the second but for the sake of argument I assume you were referring to London. London is a big, exciting and diverse city and as a Londoner I’m proud of that. (In a typical British unassuming way of course)
Of course the lack of a rational measuring system isn’t keeping visitors away but adopting a universal system of measurement wouldn’t keep them away either (it would actually facilitate their stay) and Britain cannot survive on London tourism alone. The industrial sector of industry needs to be revived and for that to happen it requires a workforce that is numerate in universal measurements to be able to compete with other countries. Giving people the easy option of doing things the way they’ve always done them just doesn’t cut the mustard any more.
I think what Alex meant about Britain being hated around the world is the superior attitude shared by many influential Brits that British ways of doing things are unquestionably the best without any valid reason is hated and the retention of redundant measurements is a manifestation of that attitude.

Stimpy says:
24 March 2013

@Cliff. Must have an ‘older findings’ of popularity. So London is at the top again. Yay.

I worked at Xerox Europe (based in London) and I noticed one particular ‘fun subject’ to this. They (French, German, Swiss, Italian, err – I think thats all) had a clear attraction to imperial and it’s usage. People (europeans) started using it as a sort of ‘badge of honour’. “It’s a mile away” and, a bit more crudely, “she only looks nice due to the inch of makeup). They loved it. It was different.

One dutch girl was leaving to go back to the netherlands and bought a box with 2 x 1pint glasses inside). I said ‘Arrgh’ and followed by explaining that -true- they were pints but they didn’t have the (then) crown stamp on them. I told her to carefully ‘accidentally’ keep a couple of legal pints.

On the subjects of MEASURES ONLY – I have found that europeaners actually have a fondness to our different way of doing something, they LIKED the use of our historic measurements. These views were not ‘paying respect’ and – more importantly – they hoped that the imperial stuff would stay.

Isn’t it great that being different makes for friendly banter and that difference in measurement ‘language’ is one of those things that bring people together.

This seems to suggest that industry uses imperial measures – not so. My experience was it was metric. Like most of the rest of the world. Measures that don’t matter commercially – the size of a cricket pitch or the distance to a town – are less important, as are personal uses of imperial.

Stimpy says:
25 March 2013

@MalcomR You’re almost 100% right – most industries use metric. For starters there will be machinery bought from abroad that will have metric. There is a lot of metric ‘under the sheets’ as it were. We’re not being ‘protected’ from metric – just that your observation is correct.

By the way – my example was at the service end of the products so there was very little ‘official’ use of any measure.

Seares says:
16 March 2013

OK, Britain SHOULD have gone metric in 1965. In fact, we should have gone metric in 1862 as recommended then by a government select committee. We always pussy foot about, just as we do now with wind turbines and high speed trains (300 km/h) as the costs rise and other parts of the world get on with it. We don’t get ‘hated’ around the world- we get pitied. ‘Lost an Empire and in danger of losing our common sense’.
It’s not us old fogeys who hold us back. It’s the right wing media, mistaken self-appointed guardians of all things Victorian, especially the Daily Mail.
By the way, I played Petanque this morning with other octogenarians, and measurements to decide the nearest were ALL done in centimetres and points thereof.

We play bowls – thank goodness – that really is not going to give rise to any measurement unit controversy as shots are simply measured relative to the jack with a string measure.

I was only taught imperial measurement at school and have partly adapted to metric measurements. I think both should be taught in school but the emphasis should be on using metric. It is so much easier to calculate metric than imperial.

I always use metric when measuring room sizes, worktop length, food weight

For my height and weight, distances, inside leg, waist, chest, curtain or blind sizes, I always use imperial

Temperatures – always in Celcius although I still think of farenheit when it’s very hot
Liquids – both metric and imperial

If I was an engineer, a scientist or dealing with measurements in my job, then I would only use metric. So much simpler to use and compatible with many other countries.

As someone who walked two miles to school everyday for years, I find it very difficult to gauge distances in kilometres

Perhaps we could have a poll where we select the type of measurement we use everyday and for what reasons. Many older people will be a bit confused like me but younger ones are likely to be almost 100% metric.

We switched to decimal currency in 1971 and people managed to cope. They had no alternative and no-one can doubt that decimal currency is simpler.

If we re-introduce teaching of imperial units then we will drag out the process of completing metrication for years or decades. It will be much easier to achieve if we all make an effort. I used to use metric or imperial units in conversation, depending on the age of the person I was speaking to. Now I use metric by default and most older people cope fine.

“If we re-introduce teaching of imperial units then we will drag out the process of completing metrication for years or decades”

I cannot agree at all. I learned Latin for less than a term and have no desire to speak Latin. I doubt children having a few lessons on the old Imperial systems are going to rush around using it instead of metric.

The plus side from my brief time with Latin is that I can see roots in English words and it helps with the Romance languages. Spending even less time on the old Imperial systems would probably be equally rewarding in making sense of where tunnage comes from, yard of ale, fathoms, etc.

The whole thread has been bedevilled by some making an assumption that this is more than acquainting pupils with the Imperial system but actually a serious move to enhance Imperials status. As Which? started this and no one posting apparently knows what is being required in terms of teaching time and aims perhaps Which? could helpfully provide the information as and when available.

At least then the discussion would be based more on facts than suppositions on what might be happening.

Absolutely spot-on that we need to know more about what the government is proposing to do with teaching imperial units. I looked for information when this Conversation started and I’m still none the wiser.

I can see that knowledge of Latin can add interest but I’m not convinced it is essential to use English. I have spent years using Latin binomial names in biology and microbiology and I reckon that my knowledge and understanding was better than that of colleagues who were keen on Latin. A dictionary giving brief details of the etymology is adequate for most purposes.

dieseltaylor@….I don’t think learning Latin can be compared to learning Imperial measures at school. Did your parents speak Latin in your home? If not, then it can’t be compared to the learning of Imperial measures, which children learn in the home environment, where their parents use Imperial measures. Learning metric measures at school and Imperial measures at home just adds to the unwanted, unneeded, mixed measure mess that disadvantages our children. We often point to teachers as being responsible for our children education, but parents are equally responsible, by setting examples for their children to follow.

Childrens’ brains are pretty good at assimilating information, so I wouldn’t worry about them learning about Imperial as well as metric. See how quickly they work out how to use electronic products and sort out your computer.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

@MalcomR – I agree – the brain won’t get ‘filled up’ with metric and imperial. I was schooled in the 80’s when imperial was abolished at school. Guess where i learned it? Outside the gates, with friends, TV, papers, family. One thing that Labour govt did right was to reintroduced imperial into the curriculum. No they are going further. Nice one. To see the pre-change type school questions look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/maths/geometry/measuresrev2.shtml
That’s based on the current system. I’d like to know how the new change affects those sort of questions.

The whole world should be metric, speak English and use the £ as a currency. How much easier life would be – and like our high streets with all the same shops, how boring. I’m all for variety and the interest it brings. Ego quasi varietate.

Cliff says:
18 March 2013

Malcolm R,
Like you I love variety. But some things, like measurement, need to be standardised for convenience and even safety. You may like to drive your car on the left side of the road only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and on other days you might prefer driving on the right side. Dangerous but not boring like driving on the same side as everyone else all the time. Perhaps the instruction manual for something like a new camera or first aid instructions could be written in English with every second sentence in Latin. Inconvenient for those not versed in Latin but loads of fun for someone like yourself who has the time and inclination to work on the translation.
It’s a ridiculous idea but no more ridiculous than having two conflicting ways of measuring objects and distances for the sake of variety.The confusion caused by not having one standardised system of measurement is enormous and harmful.The great majority of the world’s seven billion population uses the lingua franca of measurement, the SI system. Less than 60 million people understand or use the parochial imperial system. You might find it boring to be like the rest of the world but sometimes it’s necessary to conform to survive.

This conversation becomes confused between those who assume two parallel systems of measurement are proposed to be perpetuated, and those who consider that a basic knowledge of what the imperial system is/was is being suggested. I am in the latter camp – as I said earlier, from when I started work as an engineer like all my colleagues we worked in metric, like most of industry. That is not the issue.