Sunday, 4 March 2012

19. Many readers still prefer imperial (ft and ins) to metric (m and cm). Put both in your stories. Use an online converter.

Most local newspapers face an intractable problem. They are written usually by the young and naive for a much older, experienced readership. The interests of the young and idealistic reporters aren't the reality for the majority of the audience.

Many still prefer the use of imperial weights and measures and their understanding of the world is governed by this. Thus 2,000sqm means nothing to them - it does not indicate the size of, say, a shop floor. Is that big, medium or small? It is approximately 21,500sq feet (so the answer is big).

But putting things into context for the reader we are doing our job - we are there to inform them about what is happening not bamboozle them with measurement systems they would otherwise never need to know.

And no, it is not talking down to people.

We are striving to reach a wide spectrum audience - that includes people for who (whom is rarely used in newspapers) the metric system means nothing. Now there is a lot of confusion because we have a dual measurement system.

For example we drive in miles but buy our petrol in litres which in turn is sold in barrels - which are US gallons.

It is confusing for every paper. Here's Rose Wild of The Times's Feedback column:

One of the longest entries in The Times Style Guide is headed, simply, "metric". The heading is more or less the only simple thing in the entry, as is hinted at in the opening advice: "The Times should keep abreast of the trend in the UK to move gradually towards all-meteric use, but given the wide range and geographical distribution of our readers, some continuing use of imperial measurements is necessary."

It might have mentioned the wide range of our writers as well, but the important message is clear: "The main aim is to avoid confusing the reader."

The article continues delving into the issues of rainfall...Nelson's column and the wide variety of buses operating in London. But it concludes:

I'll leave this subject for now with a charitable theory from Francis Wood. He suggests the problem arises "because those providing the translations are young, and have grown up knowing only the metric system, whereas my generation grew up using the imperial system every day but needing to know metric units for school science."
(Times Feb 25, 2012)

See it's confusing, which is why we should be sensible about it. Returning to petrol talk about it in litres - unless using it for historical comparison (or to get shock value - go on check it).

But then we have the 100m sprint - there is no need to convert it you would just look idiotic calling it the 328 feet 11⁄64 inch sprint.

And when we talk about drinks we refer to pints (yes, even wine for the ladies).

But generally areas relating to height and width - now given as metres as standard in planning documents - should be converted. So too space. Any examples of kilometres into miles and so forth.

Yes it does take a bit more time but people will appreciate it.

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