Some people are fantastic at estimating measures, well certain measures. I could estimate someone’s height in metres and centimetres and I would be equally happy to use feet and inches. I suspect the generation above me would prefer to use imperial units on the whole, and the generation below me seem able to do a mixture of both imperial and metric depending what you ask them to estimate. If I don’t specify a unit but ask a student to estimate the height of the room they usually say 2 metres. If I ask them to estimate my height they would say 5 foot n inches (with n generally being within about 2 or 3 inches of the correct value).
With this in mind, I cannot understand why in news articles and reports it is so common for reporters to avoid both metric and imperial measures and to invent entirely new measuring systems of their own. It amuses and frustrates me, almost in equal measure, seeing the mixture of weird and wonderful units being used because the media think the majority of the population are incapable of understanding real units of measurement. Some of the most common modern unconventional units of measurement are shown below in bold. You will see many of these daily. For example, things that are the height or length of n double-decker buses; the weight (occasionally, correctly, mass) of n elephants; the height of n Eiffel towers; the depth of n Grand Canyons and the capacity of n (Olympic-sized) swimming pools. If areas are relatively small they are compared to football pitches, if they are large they are compared to the size of Wales.
Here are some more favourites (all of which have been seen or heard in various places within the media).
- A sculpture as big as 25 wardrobes
- A cruise ship as long as three 17-car freight trains
- Another ship as heavy as 150 fully-loaded Boeing 747s.
I particularly like it when the media transcend into unusual compound measurements.
- A flight was described as moving at three football pitches per second, with a good tail wind.
It is quite interesting how the media use their unconventional measures in their scaremongering tactics.
- An article describing an aeroplane fuel tank described sheet metal approximately as thick as two or three credit cards as the only partition between the fuel and the outside world.
It gets even worse when the media transcend into the subjective.
- A power station can provide enough electricity to power 10 small towns.
I struggle with a ‘dash of’ and ‘pinch of’ in recipes*, so to give me a unit as arbitrary as a small town pushes me too far. The frustrating thing for me is that I do not know the size of a football pitch, I had to look it up and found that the size can indeed vary, which is perhaps why I was having trouble picturing it clearly. There is a minimum and maximum size for the length and width of a football pitch. Although I have been up the Eiffel tower, I needed to look up the height of it. I do not know the mass of an unloaded Boeing 747, let alone a fully loaded one. I wouldn’t actually mind the media using all these unconventional units of measure if they also quoted the actual measurement, which is often not the case.
(*Incidentally for those interested a dash is supposedly approximately 1/8th of a teaspoon and a pinch is approximately 1/16th of a teaspoon.)
Please do comment and add to this collection of unconventional units if you have seen some good ones I have missed.
All the best
Debbie Barton is a teacher, examiner and maths consultant with over 20 years’ experience. She’s written a number of books including Complete Mathematics for Cambridge Secondary 1. She also worked as a Gifted and Talented trainer and is passionate about ensuring able students are challenged with exciting stimulus.