Monday, February 24, 2014

Today in 'Ask the Editor'

Q. I am writing material that requires Imperial dimensions with parenthetical metric dimensions. Would I write "the 60-foot-tall (20-meter) tree" or "the 60-foot (20-meter) tall tree"? – from Charlotte, N.C. on Sun, Feb 23, 2014
A. The 60-foot-tall (20-meter) tree ...

Dear Charlotte: Neither of the above. A 60-foot tree is about 18.3 meters (18 if you use the feet-to-meters conversion on page 170 of your AP Stylebook, which is a little less accurate than its meters-to-feet counterpart).

Practically, your audience is likely to default to height if that's the only number you mention, so "the 60-foot (18.3-meter) tree" would be fine. But if your style is picky enough to demand both measurements, it's picky enough to tolerate a little arithmetic and a decimal point.

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Blogger Theophylact said...

Well, perhaps neither. "60-foot" is one significant figure (trailing zeroes before a decimal-point don't count), "18.3 meter" is three significant figures. Over-precision is a mathematical vice, not a virtue.

If the tree had been "61-foot", then "19-meter"; if "61.0-foot", then "18.6-meter"; if "61.00-foot", then "18.59-meter": and so on.

10:27 AM, February 24, 2014  
Blogger Theophylact said...

So perhaps "20-meter".

10:28 AM, February 24, 2014  
Anonymous raYb said...

I thought his question was about where to place the conversion, more than stickler points about height. Tree height is pretty hard to get exact, either with tape measures because of physical difficulty or with electronic tools because of angles and possible sight interference.

4:32 PM, February 24, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And here I am wondering why an American newspaper was using Imperial measure, which has never been current in this country. (The introduction of Imperial measure in the British Empire did not change the length of the foot -- that took another 50 years or so -- so it's a bit of a fine point. But it came well after the Treaty of Paris 1783.)

8:58 PM, February 24, 2014  
Anonymous thenextprescottniles said...

Not to pile on, but: the roundness of the number 60 suggests that it's an estimate, not any kind of precise measurement, so the parenthetical conversion should probably try to retain that seemingly intentional imprecision by using a round number as well. The meter being a longer span than the foot, it wouldn't surprise me if metric-using tree-height estimators were more comfortable with guesses that don't end in a five or a zero than someone using imperial measure would be, so I'd say "the 60-foot (18-meter) tree" sounds very reasonable.

1:38 PM, February 25, 2014  

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