Sunday 28 April 2019

A Tonne of Confusion

I do a lot of editing for various organisations. It can be really interesting, you learn a lot as an editor, reading through information on many different topics. I've covered gender-based violence, the refugee crisis in Europe, cancer treatment in East Africa, global immunisation efforts, and the lives of famous science fiction and fantasy writers, to list but a few. At the moment, I'm working on water management and soil erosion.

Not only do I learn a lot about these subjects, but I learn even more about language. It's only over the past couple of years that I've felt confident enough to edit in both British English, my native English, and American English. My confidence in American English has grown through reading pages of reports and learning common American variants of words.

It's actually come to the point where I've started automatically spelling some things in an American way, which is something my younger self would have been horrified at, but my older self is quite at home with. I mean, honestly, when did program ever need that extra me?

The thing is, just when you think you know exactly what you're doing, something mad hits you in the face, like the fact that you spell enrol with one l in the UK and two in the US, but travelled with two in the UK and one in the US.

Often, second-language English authors learn English switching between different education systems. People growing up in many parts of Africa, for example, have been through education systems developed using both American and British sources. So they see both spellings on a regular basis, but don't always know why the spelling is different or that they belong to two different spelling systems. Because of this, both spellings seem acceptable in all situations. It's really common to edit a report where the author writes organization and organisation in the same paragraph, sometimes within the same sentence. So, you really have to be on the ball and remember which particular brand of English the report is supposed to adhere to.

The one that had me stumped this week was tonne v. ton.

I'd like to simplify my findings.

At first, I thought it was another US/UK spelling variant, but it became more troublesome when I read that it actually relates to two separate units of measurement.

The bottom line is, one is metric and the other imperial. Only three countries in the world still use the imperial system, and none of those are England, where it was invented. The three countries as of 2019 are the US, Liberia and Myanmar. If the US didn't use imperial, there'd probably never be a reason to discuss this, but because America and Britain dominate the spelling of English, it's important to know the difference.

Metric Imperial
Tonne Ton
1,000 kg 2,000 lb
So, you either need to know the country you're quoting your statistics from, or you need to know the exact weight of your object in order to work out which spelling to use. One tonne is roughly equivalent to 1.2 ton, as 1,000 kg equals 2,205 lb. 

This was all rather upsetting to me, as I grew up in the British education system in the 1980-90s. Although the UK went metric in 1965, before I was born, I grew up talking about my height in feet, my weight in stone, and recipes in pounds and ounces (lb/oz). This is because both my parents and teachers talked that way. I still understand height much more easily in feet than metres and I have no idea what stone translates to in kilos. However, I did grow up using the spelling tonne. So, I was using the metric spelling but understanding the imperial system. 

Just to confuse matters further, if you're just referring to something that is very heavy, rather than a specific weight, you can use ton in both systems. Even a British person could say: That elephant weighs a ton. Meaning that elephant is very heavy, rather than that elephant weighs exactly 2,000 lb.

And the final nail in the coffin of reason, tonne is the metric spelling, but can also be called a metric ton. When you precede tonne with metric, you drop the ne. So, a ton is different to a tonne, but a metric ton is also not a ton.

And with that, I leave you to your breakdown.

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