Spelling Out Metric

Chang Apana – The “real” Charlie Chan

By The Metric Maven

Mind, like parachute, only function when open. — Charlie Chan

My interactions with English pedants has generally been filled with friction. They offered spelling rules which are clearly arbitrary and somehow link the ability to regurgitate these strings of letters with intelligence. Take for instance the number 4 is spelled four, but the number 40 is “correctly” spelled forty. One web page of pedantic rules reminds the reader:

When writing out numbers between forty and forty-nine, be sure to remember that forty has no u in it (this is a common spelling error).

Is something really an error when it makes no logical sense, and such rules appear  to have sprung out of an intellectual vacuum? Let’s change the spelling of 40 to fourty and have it make sense. Is the spelling color or colour more intelligent? Program or programme? The British might have some input on this.

I was recently reading the interesting book, Charlie Chan, by Yunte Huang, who has a PhD in English. One expects with that background, his prose will conform to the most up-to-date standards of our American English grammar. A paragraph in the book stopped me in my tracks:

Overlooking any questions of the viability of this computation, I realized that when I hit:

“…with more than 250 sugar plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, the aggregate yield was only twenty-five million pounds in 1866. By contrast, Hawaii’s mere twenty-nine small plantations yielded a total of twenty-seven million pounds in that year.”

I had no idea what the magnitude of the numbers were. The concatenation of the two spelled out quantities, sandwiched between the number of Hawaii’s plantations left me bereft of numerical information.

I had an immediate flash-back to a lesson my High School English teacher imparted. She was adamant that when writing proper English prose one spells out numbers, and does not introduce numerals. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it, after all, a spelled-out number is as cognitively understandable as a Hindu-Arabic expression?—Right?

After a considerable number of solar orbits, I began to question this assumption. When I read this passage, I became convinced that spelling out numbers was an arbitrary “rule of English grammar” that served to allow one to readily read the prose, and lose the numerical content.

On one style page I found online, asserted there are rules for “regular folks” and those for when it involved “scientific writing.” This is the same odoriferous BS used in the US to say that Ye Olde English measurement is for “regular folks,” and metric is only for “science.” This is simply absurd and promotes innumeracy. Over 190 countries would probably also demur.

Take the value twenty-seven million pounds. We can first write it as 27 million pounds. The numerical representation uses two symbols to convey the same information that prose requires 12. The hyphen is to tie the two words twenty and seven so you realize it is a single number and not 20, 7. We have a Ye Olde English modifier of million, which when written out would be 27,000,000 pounds. I’m assured by English pedants that the commas are “proper” which demonstrates that grammar rules are but monuments to some mythological tradition devoid of introspection, and not an enlightened scientific one.

Perhaps we could write 27 million pounds using the metric system as: 12 Gigagrams and 25 million pounds as 11 Gigagrams. Now if the quantities in the sentence are written numerically, rather than alphabetically we obtain:

“…with more than 250 sugar plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, the aggregate yield was only 11 Gigagrams in 1866. By contrast, Hawaii’s mere 29 small plantations yielded a total of 12 Gigagrams in that year.”

Wow, look at that! The numbers all seem to stick to their respective nouns and provide easy comparison. I can see that just under 10 times as many plantations were needed on the mainland to match about the same sugar output as those found in Hawaii !

I have been accused many times of being verbose with my prose. Sadly, the evidence is generally on the accuser’s side. Wordiness is indeed undesirable, and I struggle to prune my sentences. Wordnik defines wordiness thus: “The excessive, often unnecessary, use of words in a sentence.” Why is it that no English pedants have an objection to being verbose when expressing numbers? It is argued in one style guide that: “It is generally best to write out numbers from zero to one hundred in nontechnical writing.” So it is better to write out eighty-seven Kilograms, than to use 87 Kg in a sentence? Seems verbose to me. What may be easy to read, does not translate into ease of cognition. The practice of writing out numerals alphabetically often inhibits “reading comprehension” in my view, which English pedants also use as an important metric.

Hindu-Arabic numerals have such a polluting effect on English prose according to the pedants, that no sentence is to begin with one. So

Seventeen seventy-six was the year America became a nation.

is a correct sentence, but,

1776 was the year America became a nation.

is an abomination of the written form of The (definite article) English language. One must have a word first, such as:

In 1776, America became a nation.

That is a shorter sentence with the number assumed to be a year, but a clarification is spelled-out (literally) in the previous sentences. One loses a clarification in the sentence above. It could be re-written:

In the year 1776, America became a nation.

instead, which is a lot of extra effort to prevent a Hindu-Arabic number from starting a sentence, when both sentences have the same number of words and numbers.

My interest is to present numerical information in written prose in a manner that provides the easiest cognition. If the “rules of grammar and style” try to interfere, I will gladly slay them for clarity. Winston Churchill made himself quite clear on this point when he said: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.

6 thoughts on “Spelling Out Metric

  1. should be 12 000 Mg and 11 000 Mg, not 12 and 11 (or you can use Gg if you want, but then the question of mixing scales becomes relevant if there’s anything well into the sub-1000 Mg range.).

    • Indeed, I forgot 2.2 Kg per pound, and not just grams. I will change to Gg. Thanks for noticing. Gigagrams makes more sense, I should have noticed. You have a point that using Mg allows for more flexibility when values could go sub Gg, but the data won’t be going there, so I see it as a bit more of a comparison table situation. On the other hand if one wanted to see the per plantation values it looks like 44 Mg per plantation for Louisiana and Mississippi, and 414 Mg per plantation for Hawaii, and presenting it in Megagrams makes more sense. Assuming I have not screwed up again.

  2. (It came to mind abojt how fourty should be written) You know what makes no sense too?

    When we in german say ex. 1939
    We say tausend neunhundert neun und drei├čig.
    (tousand ninehundred nine and thirty)


    I hate it, one has to wait for the last number(when somebody dictates something to you) to write the number down!

  3. This is what irks me the most when looking at astronomical data: every length is written in kilometers, no matter how far (until it gets too far and then it’s parsecs or lightyears). The distance of the Earth from the Sun is always stated as 150 million kilometers, never minding that the prefix kilo- already means times 1000, so they’re essentially saying 150 times a million times a thousand meters (150 * 1 000 000 * 1000 meters). The prefixes are meant to act as a shorthand for mathematical equations, but eventually that meaning goes away and people see the word kilometer as a standalone word with a specific meaning, not as x * 1000 meters, but like the mile; completely disconnected. I think this is why the higher prefixes haven’t caught on yet for length and mass.

  4. I really don’t see the problem. Whist reading the article it was immediately obvious to me that the mainland plantations yielded about a hundred thousand pounds each whilst the Hawaii ones yielded about one million.

    I despair that someone would need it it spelling out in GGm to make that comparison.

    What is confusing is that it does not make clear whether the pounds are units of weight or units of currency.

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