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Posted by R. Berg on April 07, 2001

In Reply to: Measurements posted by ESC on April 06, 2001

: : : : : Here in Britain were are slowly, oh so slowly, changing to the Metric system of measurement. The old system of lengths and weights is often termed 'Imperial'. What sort of collective noun is used in other parts of the world? I bet they don't call it 'Imperial' in the US!

: : : : My first impulse was to say that in the U.S., when we need to emphasize the difference between the two systems, we speak of British units: "I have a hard time thinking in centimeters. I was brought up on the British units." But, looking in a dictionary (American Heritage), I find these statements: "There are three major systems of measurement units in wide use: the U.S. Customary System, the British Imperial System, and the International (Metric) System. . . . The U.S. System has its origins in the British System, but they are not identical. . . . In the British System the units of dry measure (capacity) are the same as those of liquid measure. In the U.S. System they are not."

: : : I've never heard an American speak of the "U.S. Customary System" and about the only time we use Imperial is to refer to an Imperial gallon, which is apparently a different measure from a U.S. gallon. Mostly we just put our blinders on and wish for the metric system to go away. Part of this, I believe, has to do with American economy of speech. We abbreviate everything. We nickname everyone (whether they like it or not.) We compress. In this hyper-efficient atmosphere comes the metric system. Consider "inch" "yard" "mile" versus "centimeter" "meter" "kilometer" and so on. One syllable, one syllable, one syllable versus versus four, two, and four. It's downright un-American, by gum.

: :
: : I think that the metric system here in the U.S. found its way to only small select corners of certain industries like the entire medical industry and auto mechanic tools. Other than that, we use what we have always used--which most people refer to as "Standard". We still can only comprehend Fahrenheit over Celsius. Mile over kilometer. Cups/ounces/pounds/gallons/inches/feet ...... except the two liter bottle of coke. Why "liter" for soda when we buy a gallon of milk, a pint of half &half and a 12 ounce can of beer-somehow the metric system slipped into the American Champagne and laid rest. Go figure (in standard only please).

: All I know about it is "they" kept threatening to change to the metric system in the U.S. and it never happened.

Veering back to the question of what we call inches and ounces: I looked at some print sources. Manuals for writers and editors discuss the systems of measurement in giving guidelines for typographic treatment.

From "A Manual of Style" (12th ed., rev., University of Chicago Press, 1969): "ENGLISH MEASURE [heading]: Abbreviations for the English units of measure find very little use in straight text except for technical work. . . . INTERNATIONAL MEASURE [heading]: The international metric system of measurement employs three basic units. . . . Time [subheading]. The international system employs the same basic units of time as the English system . . . but to these are added two small units: . . . millisecond . . . microsecond . . ."

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (3rd ed., Washington, D.C., 1983) doesn't use the term "British system" or "English system" in its parallel discussion. Instead it talks about the metric and nonmetric systems. Its conversion table has the column headings "Traditional U.S. unit" and "SI equivalent."

In short, we call the traditional system of measures by different names.