A North American English: From Imperial to Metric and Other Word Choices

by Avery Peters

Published at 2013-07-18

A Road Trip


Last month, my husband and I went on a road trip in California. It was a welcome relief from a crazy winter of study. We shifted from work mode into vacation mode quite easily, but there was another shift that we had to make.


Rather than planning our trip out day-by-day with a rental car and a new hotel each night, we decided to go California-style and rent a VW camper van. This way we could stop wherever we were and not have a set itinerary.


Our rental agency gave us 120 miles per day. We easily went over that. We knew that California was huge, but we only realized it when we spent whole afternoons into the evenings driving — setting up our campsite after dark some evenings.



Image courtesy of winnond at 



Converting from Imperial to Metric


We met with some friends who live in California and we had good conversations with many Americans, whether they were locals or visiting California. When travelling or meeting with anyone new, the easiest topic of conversation is always the weather. We found this strangely frustrating, though, because this already meaningless conversation could devolve into a discussion about how to convert Fahrenheit into Celsius and then our interest in conversation would wane. A retail clerk would say, "How hot is it outside?" and I would reply, "I couldn't tell you, you wouldn’t understand Celsius anyway."


Being so close to our American neighbours, we are constantly converting from imperial to metric by multiplying the miles by 1.6km to find distances; even that is not exact (upon research I found that it is actually 1.60934). My father can quickly convert gallons to litres to calculate the fuel efficiency of his vehicle on road trips down to South Carolina.



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The Persistence of the Imperial System


As editors we must do the same, as many American texts are also published in Canada. Sometimes the text is left in imperial if it is appropriate and other times we need to convert the text to the metric system. Other times, even the author uses a mix of imperial and metric units in a text and it makes the most sense just to leave it as is. Many Canadians still have a good sense of the imperial system. It wasn't too long ago that we made the switch over to the metric system, and even still, there are some areas where we haven't switched over. I still remember my height in feet and inches and my weight in pounds.


Even though the metric system makes more sense, the imperial system persists because it was what we always used and it's easier to keep it that way. In 1927 several million people in the United States signed petitions to urge the changeover from the imperial to the metric system, but it was opposed by the manufacturing industry since it would be so expensive to convert.



A North American English?


It's true, Canadians are more familiar with the imperial system than the Americans are familiar with the metric system. We have always been in the shadow of our American neighbours. So if they refuse to adopt the metric system, we will always have to revert to the imperial system anytime we go to the United States or anytime we read an American text.


So why not adopt a North American English where we cite both imperial and metric measurements and share spellings? The majority of the differences between Canadian and American English are the spellings (as Nina discussed in the last blog post), while our speech and word choices are very similar (for instance, Canadians and Americans use "gasoline," where the Brits use "petrol"). As editors we spend so much time deciding how to treat measurements and spellings for each text. Why don't we have a system that we use across North America?