04 August, 2011

The United States Customary Units vs. The International System of Units: Which To Use?

All except for the USA, Liberia, and Myanmar (Burma), the world, the scientific community, and the military uses the metric system, also known as the International System of Units, or SI.

Now, my question is: what system do you use in your writing?

Say you write for an audience that's global--if you live in the USA, Liberia, or Myanmar (Burma), (the last two are rather unlikely, I admit, for readers of this blog) you will probably think in the United States Customary Units. (According to Wikipedia, Canada also uses them for some things, though they've legally switched).

Unfortunately, a lot of other people do not. I would imagine it would make it harder for readers to get a sense of proportions and could be confusing.

Conversion to inches/cm or feet/meters is notoriously difficult unless you're an absolute whiz with numbers (in which case, kudos). 2.54 and 0.3048 just aren't easy units (and along that line, neither is 5,280, the number of feet in a mile) to multiply or divide by. 5/9 for Fahrenheit to Celsius is a bit better, but still. Then there's time as well, such as 16:00 instead of 4:00 PM.

Because I write Science Fiction that usually takes place among different planets, I figure a more widely-used system would make more sense, and so the figures stated are in the International System of Units. Or I just make up units, if that's the kind of SF I'm writing, such as Galactic Measurement Standard or what-have-you.

Which system do you use in your writing? US Customary Units or SI? If it's Fantasy or Science Fiction, do you make up units or use ones in the real world? Or is this something you don't think about, or figure readers will understand?

-----The Golden Eagle


Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

My SF stories are set on an internationally run spaceship, so my characters use SI units. Since I work in a lab, I'm already familiar with this system. The trick is to write in such a way that people who don't know these units can still follow what's going on.

j. littlejohn said...

i just use words like: big. maybe compare it to objects that everybody has a scale of?

Budd said...

Standard measurements are what I know and you should write what you know, right. I have no sense of sense of scale for the metric system. I can show you with my hands about how big an inch or foot is but milimeters and centimeters I would just be guessing.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I like to make it up as well. Or, since I write fantasy, use out-of-date units. Or just whatever. It's not something I worry much about, but I probably should. It'd be frustrating not to know how far/near something is in a story. :)

GigglesandGuns said...

Books I've read using SI weren't that hard to follow. Something always gives me a reference point. I don't care that I may not figure it exactly.
I agree with Budd though, use what you know. Readers are bright and can follow a thought.

Nicki Elson said...

If the story is set in the U.S. I use USCU if it's in another country metric---at least I try to remember to use metric. Since you're writing fantasy I think it makes perfect sense to use the more commonly used international system. By then the U.S. will surely covert...maybe?

Sarah Pearson said...

In England we're all about the metric. Many of us don't like it and still use Imperial. I measure my height in feet and inches and my weight in stones and pounds, not centimetres or kilos. In shops they have to price in kilos but are fine when I ask for the item in pounds.

In my writing it is, and probably always will be, imperial. Unless I write that fantasy one day in which case it'll probably be groats and leagues :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd say I use my own, but so far I've managed to avoid any definite descriptions of measurements. Cheating I know, but so far I've made it work!

Gracie said...

I'm Canadian, so I generally put everything in metric (except for the things we don't use metric for... like we measure height in feet still). However, since the states has such a large sphere of influence, I know that when a character in a book says its 103 degrees outside it is referring to 103 Fahrenheit, not Celsius. (Same goes with miles, etc.)

Marlena Cassidy said...

Since most of what I write tends to take place in the US, I write with United States Customary Units. But I don't think I really mention measurements that often in my writing.

If wrote Science Fiction, I would totally make up my own crazy measurements. I'd have too much fun with that.

Old Kitty said...

I am completely useless with numbers and measurements and only undertand centimetres, inches and feet and at a push, yards! No more! So I avoid any precise measurements in my writing and never think of a plot where numbers are essential. LOL!!

Take care

M Pax said...

I'm writing primarily for the US, so use the US system. Will use the metric system in parenthesis or the other way around. In one section, I use Kelvin then put Fahrenheit in parenthesis.

Write for your primary market, is my suggestion. And if something is usually measured in one unit over another, use that. That's why I used Kelvin for some stuff.

Stephanie, PQW said...

When I write SF I tend to create my own units of measure, which I enjoy. When I write historical I use whatever they used at the time. Currently I'm writing in ancient Nubia. Because there was a significant link with ancient Egypt I can find resources that help. So...research is always a part of my life.

Jules said...

OH GOOD I can answer this one!! :) Legally the US did switch and I do not remember the year but metric is a Federal requirement on documents or at least for construction. However, 99% of all materials are sold and made in the US are still in the old form of measurements.

For writing SF I'd make up my own, like maybe rock, paper, scissors. :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

anthony stemke said...

I use the US customary and put the metric in parenthesis right next to it.
Whatever your audience uses you should use.

Lynda R Young said...

Because I write fantasy I try to avoid any system. I use hand spans and things like that.

Generally the book will be edited to fit the region to will be sold in.

Nicki T. said...

Yes, Canadians DO officially use the metric system, but we don't actually USE the metric system all the time. We still buy a lot of things in pounds.

Charles Gramlich said...

When in question, I use American standard. Metric just doesn't sound right in a western. I also use made up measures in SF and fantasy a lot.

Arlee Bird said...

Interesting topic that has not come to my mind. Most of what I have written takes place in the US and though I don't recall using many standards of measurement, I would probably use US units for what I've written since the action takes place in the past and primarily deals with measurement in pretty unscientific terms. Something to consider for sure.

Tossing It Out

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi .. I know that when I write posts I add in both measurements usually .. and I'm aware on overseas shipping documentation quite often there's both - it was a requirement to have metric, that's why we changed here in the UK .. though many of us can't do the metric part yet ...

Glad I don't write books! - Cheers Hilary

Ellie Garratt said...

I hadn't really though about it, to be honest. In my science fiction novel I just used standard units. However, I have an idea for another sci-fi novel, and I'll be making the units up!

A lot to think about ;)

Beth said...

Being Canadian, I'm in a bit of a middle ground. The metric system came in when I was a kid, so I had already started to think in the imperial (aka American) system. Thinking back on it, I think I avoid using measurements in my books altogether!

Jake Henegan said...

I try to avoid using length, unless it's a comparison to another object that the general length is known of.

But if pushed, I would use kilometres instead of miles (or just be very vague with my units, i.e. a couple of miles) since I have no idea how far a mile is.

Laila Knight said...

The closest I've come to using such terminology would be by way of inches or feet. The rest I either make up or write my way around them so I don't have to use them. :)

Phil Hall said...

For Sci-Fi, Metric is the way to go; but for everything else I write, it's English Standard--the ol' American way.

Stacy Henrie said...

I write historical fiction set mostly in the US or about American characters so I stick with the US measuring system since that's what they would use.

The Golden Eagle said...

Sandra: That's what I do in that kind of situation. (Hey, are we writing the same novel or something? :P)

J. littlejohn: LOL. That's standard everywhere! :)

Good point--if you say it's like, say, a computer screen instead of "40 cm in size" people will understand more easily.

Budd: True; fussing with the measurement if you don't really know it would just potentially throw another wrench into the system.

Most of the time I round after using a calculator/converter, if I really think metric is necessary.

Bethany: It's much easier to say "Five Zarks" instead of three miles and 3-point-x kilometers, isn't it? :P

Mary: I find it's not (most of the time) absolutely necessary to know exact figures as well.

Nicki: Science Fiction, actually. :) Not only for most of my novels is it international, it has to do scientific details--so I use metric.

I hope it does, frankly. It really doesn't make sense to be one of only THREE countries in the world that doesn't use SI.

Sarah: Interesting! I had wondered about measurement in England; I've read books published there and have noticed the system seems to fluctuate.

Everything's pounds here. :P

Leagues do come into use often in Fantasy.

Alex: I don't think it's cheating--as long as the characters know where they are!

Gracie: Sometimes the height differences throw me off; if you tell me someone's 180 cm I have no idea right off the bat if that's tall or short.

When the F or C isn't specified, I usually find it's easy to know what temperature scale it is, too. The units are different enough.

Marlena: That makes sense. :)

LOL. It is fun to create different details for the little things in a story, isn't it?

The Golden Eagle said...

Old Kitty: That's better than I am--I can't picture centimeters very well in my head or tell you how long something is in them!

M: I do that sometimes; particularly outside of writing like on a blog or in any other piece published where it's not just people in the USA reading it.

Kelvin is used a lot in scientific measurements.

Stephanie: It can be fun! :)

Good point! Research helps when finding units for stories; I had a project in the works about Ancient China and looked li and other lengths.

Jules: Wow--we switched? I didn't know that.

Interesting that so much of materials still use the old measurements when it's officially SI.

LOL. :)

Anthony: I sometimes do that for writing other than that for novels; like on a blog post, just so I'm sure international readers won't have to switch.

Lynda: Now there's a standard measurement that's been around for centuries!

I had wondered if editing played a part. :)

Nicki: Thanks for clearing that up. It said in the Wikipedia article Canada used the imperial/US system for building, but I didn't know any other details.

Charles: I can't really picture a Western with metric units, either. :P

I usually use the SI, but made up measures can be handy in a story.

Arlee: Good point. If it takes place in the past, regardless of the more globalized system today it would be different at other times.

(I wonder if people will ever write in the US system because they're writing Historical Fiction? LOL.)

Hilary: Good idea! I sometimes do it--or I try--but I usually end up with only one. :P

Writing does take some figuring out; but it's also fun. :)

Ellie: Have fun with that. :D

Beth: Canada switched that recently? I thought it had always been the metric system.

It would make it easier; no measurements to worry about that way!

Jake: It's easier to compare something to something else whose size is known.

It's, er, 5,280 feet. :P (I wonder why they had to use 5,280 feet of all units . . .)

Laila: Inches and feet are pretty standard; and since they're not that big I don't think readers would have much a problem with those units.

Phil: I tend to use the US Standard for realistic/contemporary fiction and metric for SF.

Stacy: Makes sense!

Mark Noce said...

Since I write historical fiction I actually use whatever measurements were prevalent in the specific time and culture, i.e.l leagues, distance covered on foot per day, or miles, it all depends:)

Brian said...

What a great question...and I must say I hadn't thought of that before, but I really like j.littlejohn's answer! Have a great weekend!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Even in the US, scientists use SI units. So for science fiction that revolves around actual science, that would be the way to go.

Otherwise, I would use units appropriate for the characters' setting--whatever they use.

Carol Kilgore said...

Most of my manuscripts are set in the U.S. so I use the U.S. forms of measurement. If my protagonist were French and the story set in France, I'd use metrics. Measurements don't come up too often, but they do matter. It's what fits the story more than what fits the reader.

Krispy said...

Totally great observation. I don't think too much about this when I'm writing, and since I'm from the US, I definitely just default to our system of measurements. I figure people will know what I'm talking about, and if anything, I can always change it later. A lot of times, for size anyway, I just use comparisons to give a sense of size.

Flying high in the sky.... said...

no much input here.. i am a complete blank person on this !

The Golden Eagle said...

Mark: Maybe I should start writing Historical Fiction--it sounds a lot easier. LOL.

Brian: Simple description often work instead of exact units; it's easier to say something was huge than "40 1/2 feet . . ."

Thanks! You too. :)

Jennifer: Yup. I usually stick to SI for that reason.

More realistic that way!

Carol: It adds more authenticity if the characters are actually using what they'd use in that time and place.

Krispy: Thanks. :)

Feet and inches are fairly well-known.

Good idea!

Flying high: Thank you for coming by. :)

Simon Kewin said...

It does depend on what I'm writing. Feet and inches and leagues work well in classic fantasy, less so in SF. I often just make stuff up, too.

Here in the UK we're stuck in a weird transition phase between "imperial" and "metric" measures, and have been for years. Which at least means we're comfortable with both systems ...