If someone stops you in the street to ask for directions, do you say “go x miles down that road and go left” or do you say “go x kilometres down that road and go left”? Which sounds better? Which sounds more natural to say?

In this post I look at the humble mile, making the case for keeping it, and explore ways we can modernise it. This is following on from my previous How to Hang on to your Stones post, where I looked at re-aligning traditional units in more round metric values. In this post, I will look at how this could be implemented for distances on road signs, maps, navigation systems etc.

Why keep miles?

I’ve rattled on about this in previous posts, but in summary the reason I believe we should keep miles and yards is mostly because they sound better and roll off the tongue easier. Why does this matter? Well, in a lot of cases it doesn’t (like in science, maths or other professional use) but when you’re talking about everyday life – I think it is worthwhile using words to describe things that roll off the tongue easy and seem more natural to pronounce. Remember that kilometre is pronounced kill-o-metre, which sounds even worse than the common mispronunciation kill-om-e-ter

Another reason is because it’s part of our history and culture. We’ve been using miles for centuries, ever since the Romans invented it – and we even sing songs about them! This isn’t a reason in itself to keep the mile, but it’s a valid consideration.

I do think the bigger mile is a more useful size than a kilometre, but maybe that’s just me. There is a group in the US called Bring Back the Mile that reckons that the mile is a better size than km and is an “ideal fitness distance for everybody”, see more here.

What are the disadvantages of using miles?

How many yards in a mile? Probably a question that stumps a lot of people. The answer is that actually, the version of the mile we use today is/was not commonly subdivided into yards, it is subdivided into 8 furlongs. We no longer use the furlong (except for in horse racing) so should we be using yards instead? If so, 1760 (the number of yards in a mile) is not a nice, easily divisible or easy to remember number.

What size should the mile and yard be?

I think if we are to keep the mile and yard it should be adjusted slightly to make it easier to divide up and easier to convert to/from metric. In my last post, I looked at the idea of ‘redefining’ the yard as exactly 900mm and rounding the mile to 1800 yds, making it 1.62km exactly in metric (represents about a 0.66% increase in the size of the mile). This is a nicer number as you can halve, quarter and third it to fairly round numbers (¾ = 1350, ⅔ = 1200, ½ = 900, ⅓ = 600, ¼ = 450). Halves and thirds work well, maybe the quarters are not so nice – but still pretty good over all.

Another option would be to make the yard equivalent to 1 metre. If we did that, the words yard and metre would then basically be two different words that mean exactly the same thing. You could then redefine the mile to 1600 yards, making it 1.6km in metric (a 0.58% decrease in size). This divides up nicely into halves, quarters and eights (¾ = 1200, ½ = 800, ¼ = 400) but doesn’t work well with thirds – although I don’t think thirds of miles are really used on road signs. This has the advantages of;

  • Easy conversion. Obviously yards and metres are interchangeable, and which word you use would depend on the context (e.g. roadsigns, football and golf might call them yards whereas engineers and other sports like athletics would call them metres). Also, conversion between mile and kilometre would be easier.
  • 1600 is a number that is easier to divide up by halves and quarters and easier to remember.

The disadvantage would be in the fact that there would no longer be exactly 3 feet in a yard, it would be 3’4″ (40″, assuming an inch of 25mm).

Keeping the yard equivalent to the metre, you could even just round the mile down to 1500 yards/metres (1.5km). This would make it even easier to convert between miles and kilometres. Dividing up by halves and quarters is not so nice, but you can third it nicely. This version of a ‘metric mile‘ already exists in track running and swimming. In fact, 1.6km is also sometimes referred to as a metric mile.

You could also of course totally butcher the poor old mile and change it to just be another word for a kilometre, but that would be just silly.

What do you think?

Kilometres or miles? Stay the same or change? Everything has it’s advantages and disadvantages (including metric and imperial units) so I guess I’m trying to weigh up both and figure out which is best for which scenario. Maybe we could use miles for road signs and in conversation and kilometres for science, engineering and any international communication? Whatever the case, your thoughts are welcome!

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  • David Dinenage

    Miles SHOULD be kept.

  • It’s even easier to say “Ks” (kays), which is what most people say around my corner of the globe.

  • Hugh Eveleigh

    I always use miles and in my mind equate the yard with the metre and think that’s as far as I intend going. There is no need to change them in my opinion. We can be different if we want and besides we are being realistic as imperial measures make sense from a human use point of view. These measures gradually developed in societies all over the world (not just in England) through usage and although given different names with different measures in different countries and parts of countries they were, when looked at from a distance, all remarkably similar in size so that when they were eventually settled into legal units in their respective countries it showed just how relevant they all were to daily life in whatever culture. The metric system as we know is an imposed, committee created, effective scientific system but it is not a human system. Best left, as you say, for learned scientific articles and maybe international trade. The fact that it has been modified in so many countries where it has been imposed, suggests that it is not fit for purpose in real life. We throw out too much these days and accept things which in the longer term need modification to bring them back to something useful i.e. what we originally had.

    Agree that most people don’t remember 1760 yds= 1 mile (and fewer will remember 5280 ft) but to alter them as you suggest, a neat idea on the surface, would as you imply throw everything out the window and open the gates to criticism from every quarter. I think best left alone but perhaps not to have the door shut on the idea but to see what might come out of a discussion. The 1760 is of course 8 furlongs and the 220 yds of a furlong was the distance an ox could plough before taking a breather or for that matter about as far as a man can run at full speed before collapsing. Maybe we should bring back the furlong.

    Our imperial measures are fascinating glimpses into history and usage and still, largely, have relevance today. The fact that young people don’t know them is that they have not been taught them. I was. It’s a bit akin to the stupidity shown in using apostrophes particularly in ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. If one is not taught what the difference is one is unlikely to learn it on one’s own. Every child should learn the imperial and the metric system. The former for daily use (everyone) and the latter for scientists and international traders (not everyone) but we can all learn them whether or not we might use them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts, Hugh.

  • This is like learning Esperanto. I am familiar with Customary/Imperial and with metric. Exactly what is the value of learning this whole new made-up language of redefined measurements that no other country will use. The US and UK will stick with some Customary/Imperial because it is ingrained, and we already need to understand metric to talk to the other 95% of the world. Basically, you are suggesting I discard the Customary/Imperial to learn these new measurements. I’d rather talk metric to everybody.

    • If we used this, the ‘old’ definition of a mile would no longer be valid in any country that uses it. Plus it less than a 1% change in size, I don’t think it’s massively different. Also, for professional use, including if you are communicating with one of the 95% of the rest of the world, you would use metric. I’m only talking about everyday use like on our roads.

  • Mark Williams

    Yes, I always give distances/ directions in metric because metres—and therefore kilometres, pronounced more like keel-oh-metre, BTW—are easy to keep track of subconsciously whereas imperial distances are totally unnatural and have such peculiar factors between them that even Roman legionaries would probably find them unusable in their current form. When the recipients—many of whom are engineers and scientists—ask what those distances are in imperial, I currently just tell them that I do not know. But inspired by this post, I shall in future be able to reckon the numbers relatively quickly into Irish usuelles furlongs of 200 m for them :-).

    It is amusing to note that you are quite happy to consider re-defining your yard to equal 1 m but regard doing the equivalent for your mile to equal 1 km as `silly’ even while you `butcher’ the multiple between the two. Consistency, much?

    • I float the idea of changing the yard to be equal to 1m because they are very similar sized units – much like in a previous post the ‘ton’ and ‘tonne’ end up being equal, as they are currently almost the same. Whereas the keel-oh-metre (I thought kilo is pronounced kill-oh?) is quite different to a mile, which is why I said it would be silly. But you’re welcome to suggest that we do in fact change the name of the kilometre to ‘mile’, all views are welcome!

      • Mark Williams

        The pronunciation must be a case of two countries separated by overlapping languages ;-).

        I do, further to the stones post, nail my colours firmly to the mast of John Wilkins’ 1668 tentative proposal for length names—except the `degree’ which is just asking for trouble (the grad is only marginally less problematic)—and would happily substitute your new yard for the `standard’. So; league = 10 km, mile = 1 km, furlong = 100 m, perch = 10 m, yard = 1 m, foot = 100 mm, inch = 10 mm and line = 1 mm.

        Tangentially, Wilkins’ masses—if correctly transcribed—could do with the `thousand’ and `dram’ removing before mapping upwards from the gram, therefore tun = 1 Mg. His volumes might usefully be extended below the pint with [tea] cup = 100 cm³, [dessert] spoon = 10 cm³ and dram (it’s back!) = 1 cm³.