Elements of Bile

Metric illustration from 1877. Note the capital K.

By The Metric Maven

When I first attended University, my English instructor became concerned about my competence with the language. She insisted that my writing was so riddled with problems that I must be tested for a learning disability. I sat for about eight hours of testing. The next week I returned to have my results analyzed. The woman looked at me with an almost relieved countenance and said “oh, your problem was easy to identify, you spell logically instead of correctly and generally use a single letter in place of redundant ones when spelling, you don’t see any rhyme or reason in why capitalization occurs so you only do it at the beginning of sentences, and  you see many grammatical rules as arbitrary and inconsistent, and so you do not follow them. We can fix this!”

I have done what I can to conform to the requirements of “standard” English over the years, but I have more regard for what appears to be rational usage than “proper” usage. Longtime readers know that I have a real problem with using a small k for kilo. The ordinary frequencies of radios waves are described as Hz (hertz), kHz (kilohertz), MHz (megahertz), GHz (gigahertz), THz (terahertz) and upward. All the metric prefixes for magnification in this series are capitalized—except for?—kilohertz. Longtime readers also know that I would do away with the prefix cluster around unity, and only use them for historical reference as atavistic prefixes. No more deca or hecto in the case of magnifying units. This would make the kilo prefix k, the only one which is not capitalized for the magnifying prefixes. I would then use capital K so that all the magnifying prefixes are consistent, and their capitalization would be a clue that they are magnifying prefixes. The frequencies I cited would then become KHz, MHz, GHz and THz. Distances would become Km, Mm, Gm and Tm. We would have Kg, Km and KL for kilogram, kilometer and kiloliter respectively.

Shinkansen (Osaka–Tokyo) Bullet Train Speedometer ~ 1964
Shinkasen (Osaka-Tokyo) Bullet Train Speedometer ~ 1964

Incidentally, I recently gave a lecture to a chemistry class at a local all girls high school and mentioned that small k was the accepted symbol for kilo, but I would make it a capital k. The teacher approached me after the lecture and indicated that it was her understanding that capital K is the recognized prefix for kilo. “Where did you get that idea?” I asked. She opened the chemistry textbook used for the class and in the first section it had all the metric prefixes listed, and to my amazement, the K for kilo was capitalized. I was dumfounded and stared for a moment in disbelief. It was clear to me that a capital K is so logical, that it had somehow made its way into a high school chemistry textbook. Recently I also saw a PBS documentary about a famous train crash in Japan. The documentary had historical footage from 1964 of Japan’s early bullet trains and for a moment the speedometer of a train was shown. It had Km/h with a capital k (or should it be capital K?). It was clear to me that many peoples minds automatically attempt to make the metric prefixes logically consistent, independent of “accepted usage.”

I’m sure there are plenty of reactionary minds which would object to a capital K for the metric prefix kilo on the basis that it would be confused with Kelvin. I’ve made it plain in  a previous blog that I believe the practice of naming units after scientists never should have occurred. There are also those who point out that the kilogram is a base unit (one must admit its an odd base unit that has a prefix.) and we must for some reason be reminded of this by using a lower case k—for mass and all other uses!–km, kL, kHz, and so on.  This assertion is nothing but a goldfish bowl filled with red herrings. Rational consistency in engineering and science takes precedence over “heritage.”—or as the English might say “heritage”.

In my usage, all the magnifying prefixes would be upper case, K, M, G, T, P, E, Z, Y and all the reducing prefixes would be lower case m, µ, n, p, f, a, z, y. This would produce an “element of style” which would be consistent with technical usage. All metric prefixes would differ by 1000, the upper case would magnify and the lower case would reduce the base unit. Could we all just agree on the gram as a “heritage virtual base unit?” This proposed usage would be a consistent expression that any grade school student could master in a day and use for the rest of their life. It would be a consistent rule for the literary expression of metric prefixes that one could count on, unlike “i before e except after c and in words like neighbor and weigh.” And weight of course.

Longtime readers have heard this all before, but what I’m proposing in this essay goes far beyond capitalizing K when using the kilo prefix. I have my own ideas about the capitalization of their accompanying words. I would capitalize Kilohertz, Kilogram, Kilometer and all the words which use a magnifying metric prefix. In general, if a word is describing a metric prefix-unit combination, and the prefix magnifies, then it should be capitalized, and if it reduces, then it should be lower case. For example Petagrams would be Pg, and mg would be milligrams. In astronomy Km would be Kilometers, Mm is Megameters, Gm is Gigameters and so on. All the names would be capitalized. If one is working with electronics, mm is millimeters, µm is micrometers, nm is nanometers and so on.

The only barrier between myself and this usage is the “keepers of style manuals.” They will complain about my use of KHz, but not object to  a sentence which states “the weight of a piano is many kilograms” which is a fundamentally flawed statement. If it were written “the weight of a piano is many Kilograms” I’m sure there would be guffaws and outbursts about the capital K. It would probably be lost on them that grams are mass and newtons are metric “weight” which is a much larger problem.

I’m going to institute this style practice in my blog, and fully expect there will be some wagging of bony fingers, and venting. My only defense will be to state that I have developed my own consistent style manual, which is named for what it might generate by its usage, The Elements of Bile.

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