A Question of Convenience

Irish-Corned-BeefBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My favorite meat market is supervised by a long-time Irish immigrant to the US. He is of good humor and was pleasantly surprised when he realized why I came in and generally ordered 0.45 pounds of hamburger. “It’s 200 grams” I pointed out one day. Like most persons who have lived in countries with the metric system he immediately exclaimed “The weights and measures here are crazy, I don’t understand why they do it. It took me a long time to get used to them.”

He noted that people can be very exacting about their measures. One day a patron asked for a steak cut to one-quarter of an inch. When it was placed on the scale, the Irishman asked if that was good. The customer reached into his pocket, produced a tape measure, measured the steak’s thickness and indicated it was close enough. The Irishman was floored by this.

During the Winter, I generally carry a millimeter-only tape measure with me. I produced it and told him that from now on I was going to demand my steaks be to the millimeter. The Irishman assumed it was an inch measure, so I pointed out that it wasn’t. He was so surprised he came around to the customer side of the meat counter to get a better look at it. We commiserated about the lack of the metric system in the US. Now and then when I would come in I would pull out the tape measure and say “I need steak—to the millimeter.”

The market has been around since the 1940s and is still a “small-town” feeling independently owned family business. The people behind the counter recognize me when I do business there. One day I was asked “You’re the metric guy—right?” I admitted I am. He asked: “If we switched over to metric, how would we do business? how would we measure things?” I told him that only grams would be used mostly, and pointed to my blog showing how the UK packages its foodstuffs. “You would think of 1000 grams as a Kilogram or 2500 grams as 2.5 Kilograms with very little thought.” The values you would use would generally be all integers without a need for decimal points. He seemed interested. Liquids would all be measured in milliliters and would also be integer values without decimal points. You would sell 300 mL of barbecue sauce, or 250 mL of mustard, it would all be simple numbers. The person behind the counter was still not convinced. I jokingly said I would report his intransigence to the Irishman.

As I was driving back to my residence with my 200 grams of ground beef, I wondered what the best value for pre-packaging might be. When one goes into an ordinary chain grocery store in the US (not my meat market) the beef is generally found in one-pound packages. They are not really 1 LB, they are 1.15, 1.2, 1.1 and so on. Now and then you will find some that are 1.00, but it’s not a requirement obviously. It struck me that the constant argument for Ye Olde English measures is how convenient they are, despite their obvious awkwardness as in the case of pounds and ounces. If you buy one pound of hamburger you can make it two 0.5 LB patties, or three 0.333 pound patties or four 0.25 LB patties. One of the weird arguments made about the meter is that you have to have 0.333 meters when it is divided in three and so without a metric foot the metric system is somehow incomplete and irrational. If the embracers of medieval measures believe this is a valid argument for length, they should also consider it a problem for weight (mass) in Ye Olde English.

It struck me that pre-packaged ground beef could be sold in 600 gram packages. This would make it easy to have two 300 gram patties, or three 200 gram patties, or four 150 gram patties, or five 120 gram patties, or six 100 gram patties. Seven doesn’t work, but you see the point. This is similar to the choice of 600 mm center to center separation in millimeter only metric construction. It makes the simple arithmetic easy and generally works out to whole numbers. Of course this would also be true for 600 mL volumes, should one be interested in dividing them up in the most utilitarian way possible. When I had custom mm only metric rules fabricated to give to my best clients I chose 600 mm. It seemed long enough to measure a large number of everyday engineering objects, and also was a number which is easily divisible with a large number of integers.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

8 thoughts on “A Question of Convenience

  1. Maven:
    A clear fun-to-read essay here.
    However, a few points that would have made it clearer:
    – Writing “0.45 pounds” should be “0.45 pound” as it is clearly not plural (and not a language like Chinese, where every plural is spoken/written as a singular, with the context determines whether it is plural or not; for example, yi ren and er ren for one person and two persons).
    – Something like “600 gram packages” needs a hyphen (especially as it’s not Chinese; otherwise, you’d have to write “600 grams’ package”, which would be correct but silly).
    – Although I’ve come to agree with you that the Symbol for kilogram should be Kg, such does not mean the plain-English word “kilogram” should be capitalized too!

    • Spoken, it is 0.45 lbs. The singular is pretty much only used when reference is made to a unitary pound (e.g. “a third of a pound”).

      • Sorry, Blab, but any number between zero and one with a context is singular. Thus, for example, 0.2 kg is “two-tenths of a kilogram” or “one fifth of a kilogram” or simply, as the Maven likely prefers, 200 grams.

        Wrt speech, perhaps “0.2 kilograms” sounds better but is nevertheless still in error…

        • There’s no error here. It’s just language convention. If it’s understood and accepted as a regular practice it’s correct.

          The metric system is different though. In that there is a correct and incorrect way to write things and it’s dictated by a style guide.

          • You are perhaps missing a big point, namely that saying something like “0.2 kilograms” is putting the emphasis on “2” instead of “0.2” (the two-Tenths).

            Anyway, In Writing, it should be “0.2 kilogram” (or of course better yet 0.2 kg).

            Unfortunately, you seem to be one who believes something becomes correct by continued misusage. (Thank goodness for an SI style guide written with care and based primarily on logic!)

  2. If you buy one pound of hamburger you can make it two 0.5 LB patties, or three 0.333 pound patties or four 0.25 LB patties.

    When you buy 480 g of hamburger you can divide it into 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 16, 20, 24, 30, 32, 40, 48, 60, 80, 96, 120, 160, 240 equal parts with zero decimal dust.

    If the ounce is redefined as 30 g, people can ask for gram amounts in increments of 30 and have a plethora of factors to work with. Divide 10 ounces into thirds. You get 3.33333333 to infinity. Then divide 300 g into thirds. You get 100 g each, a nice round number.

    What would he have done if the customer after touching the meat with his dirty tape measure refused to buy it? He should have been made to pay for it first before coming near it with a tape measure. Very unsanitary.

  3. I think if one is going to start selling to metric weight to customers who are use to thinking in U.S. C pounds, I would have a chart in the store pointing out grams to a pound (454) and 500g to a half kilogram. Then I think customers would easily see price in kilograms when ordering 200, 250, 500, or 1000g of ground beef or steak. I think the same when one thinks 6 medium size apples are about 1 kilogram. People are already comfortable buying 2 L bottles.

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