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The big debate: metric vs imperial…

Metric vs imperial

When discussing driving rules that you’d like changed a debate about switching from Mph to km quickly escalated to one on metric and imperial measurements. So which measurement do you prefer? We’ve invited community member Ian to sum up the debate so far…

In our discussion on switching from miles per hour to kilometersWilliam asked:

‘How about a topic should we go back to using Imperial rather Metric for selling items.’

So, ladies and gentlemen: are you happy with your millimetres, content with your millilitres, weighed down by your kilograms? Or do you longingly hark back to the halcyon days of Cables, Links, Rods, Perches, Quarts, Gallons, Hundredweights and fluid scruples?

Metric vs Imperial

For a number of years now the UK has used metric measurements, as Malcolm R pointed out:

‘We are a metric country in general – business, education, manufacturing. Just a few hangovers like road distances.’

But that doesn’t mean that everyone thinks in metric measurements, for Bishbut, imperial measurements are still useful:

‘Many stores are still using imperial measurements so when I go to buy anything by length etc. I do not which measurement to use .It is unhelpful to go with a metric measurement just be told we still sell in feet and inches . lets return to imperial the children taught metric are young enough to learn imperial measures we older folk cannot get imperial out of our heads We are leaving the EU lets just forget about metric things and revert to our well known things’

But, wavechange wondered, if we were to switch back to imperial, why we should stop at measurements?

‘I suppose we could go back to pounds, shillings and pence too. I have some of the old coins but would need 792 of these large old pennies to buy a pint of beer in my local pub.’

Quiet pointed out, for those who aren’t using metric, that it’s just a learning exercise:

‘I’m 64 and was taught and used metric measurements at school (and Centigrade as well as Fahrenheit). How is it still difficult for we older folk? If you’re 92, like my dear old Mum, you may just have a point.’

And a learning exercise should be necessary, otherwise, we end up in strange situations like poor Clint Kirk:

‘I went into a major chain DIY shop last year, and took a wooden board to their cutting service. “Can you cut this into 50×33 centimeter rectangles, please? ” “Sorry mate, my machine only measures in millimetres.”’

Over to you

It’s clear that some feel we should lose all metric measurements, others that we should keep both systems. A bit like train lines with varying gauges.

So what do you think?

This is a guest contribution by Which? Conversation community member Ian. All views are Ian’s and the community members own, and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.


I was taught in imperial units at school. But only those units in general use – the only time a rod, pole or perch was mentioned was when our teacher told us we wouldn’t need to learn them. Unfortunately the metric-pushers frequently pull out the most obscure imperial units when trying to belittle a system which has served us well for a very long time. One such belittler was a Maths teacher I knew who boasted of how he now taught his pupils to work in base 3, 12, 16 etc. A bit like being able to convert to yards, feet, pounds? Good thing he emigrated to Australia where no doubt he felt more comfortable.

We can work with two systems of measurement perfectly well, just as many countries work in two or more languages. Sadly, a lot of people in Britain struggle with the concept of speaking more than one language – yet it is perfectly normal across the world, even as close as parts of Wales. Equally, a lot of English people don’t realise that England (in addition to Scotland, Wales and Ireland) does have its own rich culture which is worthy of protection – quoting your height in feet and inches and your weight in stones is part of this. It’s not like spuds bought by the kilogram taste any better than those bought by the pound.

You don’t need to be a nationalist, anti-European or even patriotic to appreciate the virtues of retaining imperial measurements for every-day use.

12, and there are 12 inches in a foot, is more manageable than 10, isn’t it? It is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 & 12, whereas 10 is only divisible by 1, 2, 5 and 10.

However, a 10 x 10 x 10 cm cube = 1 l = 1 kg (if filled with water… (at sea level…(not boiling…))). How many ounces are there in a pound (good old European (Roman) units 😉 )?

My case against the imperial system rests.

As a legacy system, imperial units are bound to linger on in everyday language, being part of our culture. We still talk of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile”, a 15 hands high horse which might win a race by a furlong. And of course we still buy our draught beer in pints, although gills for wines and spirits have been replaced by millilitres, without a national outcry. Newspapers use Fahrenheit for summer temperatures because 80F sounds very hot, and -10 Celsius is way below freezing in winter, whereas the corresponding Fahrenheit temperature of 14 degrees is rather meaningless.

But imperial units would hardly be taken seriously in science and technology. In these Brexit times we realise that all countries of the world, with the exceptions of the US, Burma and, Liberia, use metric units. Our own country is committed to the refined elegant metric system known as the système international d’unités (SI), using metres, kilograms and seconds as base units, but which is easily capable of being expanded into a wider rational system.

Believe me, if you had been taught science using the old confusing imperial units you would welcome the SI system with open arms for its elegance, simplicity and rationality!

Even using a basic calculator, you would find it hard to fathom (pun intended) the area of a rectangular roof measuring, say, 11 yards, 3 feet and 6 ½ inches, by say 6 yards, 7 feet and 4 ¾ inches. Of course if you measure the same room in metres the whole exercise is vastly simplified.

I well remember when reels of electric cables were first supplied in lengths of metres some electrical retailers wondered how they could sell lengths to their customers in feet? The actual behaviour of the world around us is unaffected by the system of units we choose to use.

All though I have yet to find a metric tape measure in the shops or even one with the metric scale at the top, I bought a laser measuring device a couple of years ago and was pleased to see that it was metric-only. The tyre pressures for my car are under the fuel cap cover and are in metric only.

I’ve never had any problem using a tape measure graduated in imperial and metric. The top is only relative – particularly when making vertical measurements. 🙂

That’s great, but in a country where we teach children to use the metric system and we trade in metric units, it surprises me that I have never seen metric tape measures in shops. I shall order one or two online.

Makes better use of resources to combine the two. No downside that I can see (but I’m sure others will).

RS Components offers about 20 metric-only tape measures, so I will buy one or two.

I do think the big government con was changing petrol & diesel prices to litres.
You wouldn’t think to multiply the price by 4.55 to see how much you are paying for a gallon.

As far as I can see the metric /imperial debate is an age thing.
My 45 year old son and his age group were taught metric at school, so has everyone younger.
Imperial will fade away as those that use it do.

One foot in the grave, eh, Chopper?

Last year I mentioned that although metric-only tape measures are readily available online I had not seen them in shops. I was in Wickes today and by the checkouts there was a display with all-metric tape measures, albeit small ones (2 metres).

Yusei Fudo says:
21 August 2018

I think the imperial system is far better than the metric system. Imperial is so much easier to understand.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

The good thing about avoir du pois is that it’s very British.

We keep those in the freezer.
I was initially brought on imperial and in later education took metric on board. My professional life was metric, industry was metric, but I still see some things better in imperial. Miles and pints for example, 8’x4′ sheets of board and house bricks that effectively are 9 x 4½ x 3″. I see nothing wrong in being able to use two systems at a personal level.

I wouldn’t mind if pints became 500 ml – most bottled drinks are in random volumes. I think it would be too complicated and prohibitively expensive to change from miles to kilometres on the roads – and the transition period could be problematic. Country roads and villages still have ancient finger-post signs and I wouldn’t like to see them go. Building boards and bricks are sold by the unit and so long as the dimensions are consistent throughout the job it doesn’t much matter what they are.

From time to time, brewers experiment with reintroducing pint bottles. One example was Marstons Pedigree, which survived for a while before returning to 500 ml bottles. Either Charles Wells Bombardier or Shepherd Neame Spitfire, or both, were available in pint bottles.

At present there is no opportunity to sell draught beer and cider in metric units, even though they are required for spirits and wines. Third, half, two-thirds of a pint and multiples of half a pint are the permitted measures.

We don’t need to go back to imperial measurements, but I would like to see both sets of measurements on more products. We certainly need to ensure that using imperial in businesses is no longer criminalised.