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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 would never go to Kilometres and would stay Miles only. I do not use anything other than imperial measurements I buy in ounces at food stores and inches or yards for materials. I hate continental measurements.

In the coming years, the UK is going to have to work hard to retain respect from other countries and trade effectively with them. Alternatively, we could foster our reputation for tradition and quaintness, and live in the past.

Although I can use both the metric and imperial systems, I would very much like to see metrication completed without messing around with both systems for decades to come. Children are taught metric units and it is young people who are the future of this country.

We are a metric country – having worked in industry,design and manufacturing was metric. There are of course hangovers from imperial days partly due to investment in machinery – certain steel tubing for instance is 76.2, 88.9, 114.3, 139.8mm dia – the fact that they were originally tooled up as 3, 3 1/2, 4 1/2,and 5 1/2″ doesn’t make then any less metric. It is how you describe them and use them that matters.

Unless we can identify any specific problems that ought to be fixed, I do not think we should be rushing to introduce further changes to our current mixed system of units.

The costs of making any such changes would have to be met by consumers, via either increased prices or increased taxes. Either way, if we are going to spend more money on public goods, then health, welfare and education ought to be much higher priorities.

Also, given the advent of smart phones, most folk are now carrying around small PCs that are more than capable of helping with unit conversions.

I think we are going to remain a nation using both metric and imperial.

I recently bought some blinds, the rail width in metric with 3½” slats. Mats are given in metric sizes but are actually multiples of feet having just bought an exact 3ft x 4ft. Garden fencing is still in foot widths.

I might be happy using both for most things, but I will always be 5ft something in height and st and lbs for my weight.

I must admit I don’t know my weight in kilos. Off the scales I expect.

Our old bathroom weighing platform is looking a bit tired [well it would be in our household] so it might be time to go metric and digital, although I’d really like to get one of those lovely red Berkel weighing machines that used to stand in Woolworth’s and print a card recording the weight.

My own scale weight “Only one at a time, please!” is actually the same in both Imperial and Metric…

If the scales go off-scale, perhaps a weighbridge would be the answer. They are bound to have them in Weybridge.

When it became mandatory to mark goods with weight and volume in metric units, milk was excluded because it was commonly sold in glass pint bottles. Now that most milk is sold in plastic bottles, we usually have weird sizes such as 1.136 and 2.272 litres (equivalent to 2 and 4 pints), whereas organic and long-life milk are often sold in litres. On the basis that manufacturers often change the size of plastic containers, I really don’t believe that it would be difficult or expensive to move to metric sizes.

I can’t see pubs and their customers wanting to move away from pints anytime soon!

Up north, many pubs offer customers 500 ml beer and a large head, unless they ask for a top-up. Many of us do.

That having been said, the glasses used have a volume that is regulated to contain (at least) one pint. ( I can still recall ordering many “pints of scotch” during my time in geordieland.)

I also fully expect canny northerners to ensure that the highest practicable percentage of the volume is filled with liquid, not froth. Us southern jessies may be soft and daft, but we do KNOW that so-called “northern sparklers” are a pointless invention.

The local micropub uses line glasses, so that customers can have their pint and a head. Perhaps we should keep sparklers for 5 November.

They only have metric weighbridges in the Grampians.
As far as containers are concerned the next complaint, if we moved to 1 and 2 litre containers, would be the size has been reduced but not the price (see another Convo). It matters little to me that we have “odd”numbers providing they correctly describe the pack – metric with maybe an imperial equivalent. Nothing wrong with helping the more elderly – why should we make their life difficult?

The Beatles preempted you. A metric week should be 10 days, 36/37 days a month, and 10 months in a year.

I thought we just had one! I had to put my wheelie bins out a day later just this last week 🙂

Ah, Beryl, we forgot and put our bins out on the usual day. Forgot there’d bin a bank holiday (except in Biningham – what a way to carry on).

South Norfolk Council empties the refuse bins consistently on the appointed weekday throughout the year with no alterations for bank holidays. Unfortunately people assume they will be emptied a day later and put them out on the wrong day.

If they can, in a Bank Holiday week, lose a day and still empty the bins, perhaps they could save a day every week and we could reduce the cost of collection?

I suspect it’s coupled to a pay deal, Malcolm and saves crews having to work on Saturdays to catch up. Unlike most councils they employ their own direct labour force. They say it is more efficient and less expensive in the end.

But then you wouldn’t have a mid week day.

This has already happened for milk. Some places sell 4 pints (2273 ml) other sell 2 litres (2000ml).

We must move into the 21st Century and drop all the absurd imperial measurements ASAP. This this real… I go into a timber merchants and order a 6-foot length of planking… I´m told “Sorry mate we sell it in metric lengths only. You´ll have to buy 2.1 meters”.. “OK” and, making a rapid mental calculation I say.. “then make it 2 cms thick..” “Sorry” he says again “but it comes in 1 inch thickness” How ridiculous!

I’d love to find a timber merchants selling decent timber – any metric would do.

The Americans still have fractions on their petrol pumps and we all know no-one remembers how to add fractions anymore, especially the hicks.

Also they have different gallon, pint volumes than imperial. This stuffed me once when mixing film developer from Kodak, who supplied US Bulk packs and I undeveloped photos of Mohamed Ali I took in a 1:1 interview, very sad.

Miles per gallon?

I’ve used litres and kilometres for years, it’s ruddy simple and well within the capability of the intelligent British public.

By the way, how may chains is you back garden and how many fathoms is your river deep?


I have a local one John. Hardwood and softwood. Avoid the diy sheds and find a trade supplier. And best buy loose, not a wrapped bundle – watch then bend as you let them free.

For decent hardwoods at an affordable price, try old brown furniture from your local auction house. Watch it isn’t veneered though. Or a salvage yard for reclaimed timber. I found some lovely oak as floorboards at a sensible price.

The trade have to use the DIY sheds around here for their softwood timber because there are no proper merchants. I know what you mean about the wrapped bundles; I bought a couple in order to frame out and fit shelves in an airing cupboard and some of the battens were twisted like propellers. Luckily I had bought enough to make the best use of the material but one of the ‘verticals’ at the back is distinctly curvaceous and far from upright towards the top. I kept the wood in the airing cupboard for a fortnight before doing the job because I could tell there were going to be further contortions.

Long live the British sausage! George Gershwins
“Oh no! They can’t take that away from me” says it all.

Seems to have wandered a bit from Ian’s intro :-). One contentious issue raised in the last debate was whether we should all totally embrace metric in our private lives (as opposed to in trade and manufacturing). My view is why should we make life any more difficult for those brought up in the great days of imperialism? If they are 5ft 7in tall and weigh 9 stone, and can’t think any other way, don’t torture them. Their doc will do the conversion if it becomes necessary. And if you know a sheet of ply is 8×4, don’t fight it and try to remember it’s really 2440 x 1220. And if you visualise things in imperial better than in metric, then do so. If it works for you in your workshop, and you have other things to worry about, don’t fret. But if you work or educate – including your children – then you must overcome the metric/imperial divide or you’ll fail yourself and them. Multi-tasking is not impossible for men. 🙂

A pound of pork sausages please, Beryl.

6 pork sausages please. 2 each for our evening meal, and 1 each for lunch the next day.

alfa, sorry, we’ve gone metric. Can only sell you 10.

I haven’t a clue what my weight is in stones or my height in feet. I’m in my 70s and I find metric much easier. So does the rest of the world. What’s so special or different about the UK? Nothing!

We deserve a medal for procrastination. I remember when we switched to selling petrol and diesel by the litre. There was opposition, of course, but the world did not end.


The important question is whether it will be oval or oblong.

It’s a round tuit.

Richard says:
4 September 2017

I retired in 2009 – so have long ago left the ranks of “young people”. However, having spent my working life in architecture, I saw the construction industry start the switch to metric back in the 1960s with only a few “legacy” projects still using imperial measure by the mid 1970s. With the initial teething troubles now long behind us why would anybody want to reverse the process by going back to the admittedly traditional but far more cumbersome imperial system? Remember that many manufactured products (think of every nut and bolt in your car) will have been made to metric standards for decades now and that most people below retirement age who actually make things will only ever have worked in metric.

Exactly Richard. The same happened in manufacturing. I’ve still got a BSI conversion device – a sort of thin aluminium slide – that dealt with all the main units, issued in the ’60s. The controversy seems to be mainly about miles, and maybe how we “must” think about units in our private lives.

There are other “imperial” measures in use. To the best of my knowledge, aircraft and ship speed is still indicated in knots – 1 nautical mile being 1 minute of arc on a meridian so was useful for navigation. And aircraft flight levels are based on feet in most countries airspace, I believe – flight level 180 being 18000 feet.

That’s right, Malcolm. To be precise, in the field of aviation, vertical distances are measured in feet, shorter horizontal distances are measured in metres, and longer ones in nautical miles – and it actually works surprisingly well! The flight levels are in units of hundreds of feet but vary according to atmospheric pressure (which is measured in hectopascals).

Andrew says:
4 September 2017

Let’s get on with it and go metric properly instead of continuing to dither over using both systems.

Looking at a wooden ruler that I used when I was a schoolboy, I see that it is graduated in:

– Five scales including inches, fourths, eighths, tenths, twelfths and sixteenths

– One scale with centimetres and millimetres

This prompted me to dig out my BSI Metric Conversion Slide, bought in the late 1960s. An aluminium sleeve with small rectangular windows both sides, and an inner slide packed with numbers, converts capacity, length – including fractions of an inch- temperature, wire gauge on one side, area, volume, mass, force, pressure and stress on the other. Priced 30/- plus 2/- postage.
All based on BS 350 whose amended versions were issued “As part of the programme for the adoption of the metric system in the United Kingdom, special encouragement is being given to the use of SI units, or suitable multiples or sub-multiples of these units”.

The slide, issued by British Standards Institution, was “Made in India” “From an original design by the Indian Standards Institution”. Post Imperialism.

In my own Imperialistic days I do not recall ever finding a use for twelfths of an inch, but they were marked on my school ruler as well.

Clive Digby-Brown says:
4 September 2017

I do a lot of woodwork and can work with both. However I prefer imperial measurements as used in the States – Don’t think I could get used to metric time ha ha

Clive, it is the result that matters if you make stuff yourself. However, if you were design for others to make – employees or subcontractors – then I’m sure you’d used metric measurements. If you leave others to do the conversion then problems of fit may well occur on some products due to rounding errors. But what you do in the privacy of your own workshop is your own business.

If you are working on your own then it does not matter what units you use. A friend used to talk about ‘gronks’ when referring to how much heating oil remained in the tank.

For effective communication it is useful to have standard units of measurement that everyone understands.

B&Q put every measurement in centimetres etc. usually a very odd number convert back to imperial and you find it to be an exact number in feet etc. still made to imperial sizes

All the tape measures I have seen in shops have imperial scales at the top and metric at the bottom, even the ones sold in Aldi and Lidl. I would like one that is the other way round, or is just metric, without having to resort to Amazon.

I notice that a double decker bus is still a common unit of measurement of length. I don’t know why a single decker wouldn’t do just as well, although I must admit that when travelling by bus I prefer to ride in the upper saloon – it’s slightly more exciting.

I’m inclined to think you are right about it being more exciting on top, John.

Credit: rarehistoricalphotos.com

Thanks for finding that picture, Wavechange. I had seen it many years ago and a recent journey brought it to mind. I notice the forward restraining cable is still slack so the bus is not yet at its limit [but then there are no passengers on it either – a full complement upstairs and only the conductor on the platform would be risky]. Buses have a wider wheelbase these days so might probably incline even further than in that demonstration. I occasionally notice trucks with sheeted sides get a bit lively on uneven roads in strong winds.

This or a similar photo was in a textbook that my uncle, who had taught physics in his younger days, gave me when I was at school. There was also a photo of cyclists racing round a banked track. Video can show so much more, for example how caravans can snake when towed at high speed.

School physics was great because much of it could be related to the world around us, unlike the sub-atomic physics I encountered at university.

Allen Williams says:
5 September 2017

John, I am afraid you are wrong: the “tilt test” was carried out with weights on the top deck representing a full passenger load plus conductor, with no load at all on the lower deck. Double-deck buses are extraordinarily stable, and are almost impossible to tip over.

Thanks for that information, Allen. Today’s passengers would probably be heavier than in the 1930’s when I expect that picture was taken. My apprehension on a recent bus journey was during a turning movement on a gradient when the front wheels would have been at an angle – but we all survived and it is a regular section of the route. As you say, a double deck bus is remarkably stable since it has a very low centre of gravity; so stable that no one considers wearing the seat belts provided.

Here is a video that was on the same website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-fZA1NJtPA&feature=player_embedded The passengers are represented by 1.5 cwt sandbags, about 76 kg, maybe a bit small now that obesity is popular.

Thank goodness no-one talks in block capitals nowadays.

Allen Williams says:
5 September 2017

Give me Imperial any day: particularly fluid ounces, gallons, and, above all, the sacred pint. No metric, please, and none of the corrupt US versions of volume either! The pint (or half pint for children) is exactly the right quantity for a serving of drink: the gallon for the purchase of petrol, paraffin, or other fuel, or paint, for that matter.
If we are obliged to sell in metric, simply re-define these familiar units in metric terms (e.g. 1 pint=568 ml) and go on using the old units.
What is a kilometre, anyway? I was once told it was about 5 furlongs, but if you are not a man of the turf, this is difficult to appreciate in the mind.

A gallon of water weights 10 lb (give or take 0.2%). Sort of metric :-). And, as you say. a kilometre is fractionally over 5 furlongs or 50 chains; are these more in the spirit of metric than 8 furlongs to a mile? 🙁

Just put dual units on household items so we can take our pick. If you must, put metric in larger type – say 72 point (1″). 12 pt will be 1/6″ so maybe that is why my school ruler had twelfths of an inch as a scale?

I’m glad you have found a use for the twelfths of an inch, Malcolm. Basic font sizes on the inch always seems point less to me.

The metric size must be more prominent:

“1. Units of measurement

You must use metric measurements (grams, kilograms, millilitres or litres) when selling packaged or loose goods in England, Scotland or Wales.

There are different rules in Northern Ireland.
The only products you can sell in imperial measures are:

– draught beer or cider by pint
– milk in returnable containers by pint
– precious metals by troy ounce

You can display an imperial measurement alongside the metric measurement but it can’t stand out more than the metric measurement.”

I am not bothered about half a litre of beer instead of a pint [subject to correct price adjustment]. It’s what you often get anyway and what you normally get in a bottle although various other volumes are available.