In January 2013, the UK government announced plans to return to teaching imperial measurements in schools (alongside metric).

The Telegraph: “Imperial measurements ‘to make comeback’ in schools”
Imperial measurements are to make a return to the classroom amid fears that children are failing to learn about pints, pounds and miles, it has emerged.

YardstickOf course, metric is still the standard unit of measure but it shows there’s still a place for imperial units as they are still used in everyday life (you can see examples of where in a previous post) and it’s still beneficial to teach our kids about it.

The UK Prime Minister (or former Prime Minister, depending on when you’re reading this) David Cameron also gives his tuppenceworth here:

David Cameron: schools should teach mainly in imperial measurements
PM says he would ‘still go for pounds and ounces’ over metric system in Newsnight interview

In this post, I’ll make the case for keeping traditional units. Not for everything, but for everyday uses such as in the greengrocer, the butcher, the pub, on the road and so on. So, I’ve cranked up my brain to the max and come up with the following reasons for hanging onto our stones (and other units…).

They’re part of our history and culture

Traditional/imperial/customary units are based on measurements that go way back to Anglo-Saxon and Roman times. Over time it has become rooted in our culture and language. This is reflected in the fact that we have a number of phrases that use units of measure, such as:

An ounce of strength Miles apart An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile The whole nine-yards Acres of space

We of course shouldn’t retain imperial units just because we have a history of using them, just like we shouldn’t go back to using the horse and cart or start listing to the Backstreet Boys just because people listened to them in the past. But I do think it’s an important consideration, just as it is with retaining other cultures like the Irish or Welsh languages, or local traditions/foods etc.

They sound better

As I eluded to in a previous post, traditional units generally sound better than metric measurements. Although metric is very easy to use and easy to convert between measurements, where it sometimes falls down is in everyday language. Quite often, when quoting measurements in metric, the units don’t sounds as good as they do in imperial units. For example, yards sound better than metres, miles sound better than kilometres (by a country mile), pints or gallons sound better than litres, inches sound better than centimetres, ounces sound better than grams, acres sound better than hectares and so on.

For example, I have a leaflet from a local supermarket that’s has an offer on a 2.75KG ham – which to me would sound better as a 6lb ham, but maybe that’s just me. Another one is saying your height in metres; 1.8 metres or 180 cm doesn’t quite communicate your height quite like 5′ 11″ does. When buying a car you might see in the specs the power output quoted as, e.g. 100 brake horsepower. What a powerful way of communicating power; horsepower. The power of 100 horses. What’s the metric equivalent? What could possible match up to the image of the raw power of 100 horses? Kilowatts. Sigh…

This all makes sense when you consider imperial units come from measurements created by lots of different people at different points in time for lots of different purposes, while the metric system was entirely designed by one person at one time and for all purposes. The simplicity of the metric system and the use of prefixes (milli, centi, kilo) makes sense, but you do make a sacrifice in terms of how the resulting words sound.

Smaller, whole numbers

When using metric, you’ll often find that you’re using quite large numbers (when using grams  or ‘milli’ units) and are likely to see decimal places in the larger ‘kilo’ or litre units. When working in imperial you are generally using smaller units. For example, in a recipe you might use 250g of something if using metric, which would be the equivalent of the much smaller 8oz in imperial. Also, a pint of milk in the shop is now a 500ml of milk (in Ireland at least), which is also a much larger number. Another example is any timber sold metric, where you might buy 50 x 100mm lengths instead of 2 x 4.

I think the smaller the number, the easier it is to use and get your head around, especially if they are also whole and even – which is often the case when using imperial units. Of course, this isn’t always the case but often is.

They’ve got character

The metric system is simple. 1000 millimetres in a metre, 1000 metres in a kilometre, shift the decimal places to convert between units, easy to understand units based on reusable prefixes (milli, kilo, centi etc), can specify measurements more precisely etc etc. That’s all great and works very well in lots of areas like maths, science and engineering. It does however lack in character. I guess it depends on how your mind works, but I think the way the words sound, the history and story behind the units, the quirks, the different fractions of units, and the quirky abbreviations for each unit (lbs for pounds, oz for ounce,  ” for inch etc) all make for a system that has a lot more character and richness to it. Have you ever been to an old pub, I mean an actual old pub that might have stone walls and snugs and decorated with rusty old tins and bottles and so on and thought that it has a lot more character to it than ‘modern’ pubs? I think it’s the same with traditional units.

More useful in everyday use

In some cases traditional measures are easier to visualise than their metric counterparts. For example, in recipes and in portions sizes in food, it is easier to visualise what a cup, a tablespoon or teaspoon of something is rather than by their weight or by millilitres. This is reflected in the fact that even if a recipe is completely metric, it still uses tablespoons and in some cases cup measures.

This one is debatable, but another example is that it works better, and is easier to visualise to use inches with dimensions of timber, furniture, screen sizes, photo frames etc. A foot is easier to ‘eyeball’ than metres. A 10-foot wall is easier to visualise than a 3 metre wall. I will admit though this is probably more to do with there being a longer history of using feet and inches in this country, but it is a consideration. 

In Summary…

Let’s face it, whether you prefer to use metric or imperial/customary in most cases depends on your age. If you were born long after we became metric, you’ll probably say you prefer metric and vice-versa. I myself was born (in Ireland in case you’re wondering) long after we started teaching in metric in schools so I’m well aware of the ins and outs of the metric system. I learned the imperial system by proxy because it was still in common use. I guess you could say I became by-lingual in both systems but for a while I did think “I probably should think in metric”, and started using it when measuring things at home – despite using only feet and inches in a previous job.

I wonder how similar a sentiment people felt during our adoption of the metric system. I wonder did we think ‘I suppose we should use it, seeing as we’re being told to’ rather than actually wanting to convert. I don’t think there’s ever been a country that has gone metric where people actually wanted it, as apposed to it being forced on them. I also wonder if kids are thought imperial as well as metric (in the UK at least) and they understand both well, which would they prefer for everyday use?

I think we can find a balance between both systems, where either system is used where it makes sense. In future posts I’ll attempt to define a duel system of measurements that respects our culture, makes the most out of the strengths of both systems and does so in a clear and non confusing way. We do have a somewhat muddled setup at the moment where we kind of float between both systems for the same thing. For example in the sale of land or property, the area is sometimes specified in metric, sometimes in imperial or it can be varying mixtures of both. So it would be good for us to review all of this anyway to define what should be used where.


Hang on to your Stones!