Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The mismeasure of man

with 4 comments


I like to think of myself as a fairly rational guy, so it might come as a surprise to discover that I deeply dislike the metric system. Yes, it makes units easier to convert, and I understand why it’s more useful and less prone to error in science and engineering. In everyday life, though, it’s sorely lacking, and it forces people to move from a system of measurement that emerged over millennia of common experience to one whose units are essentially arbitrary. The imperial measures are reflections of the human body: an inch is the first joint of the thumb, a yard is either the length of an average pace or the distance from the nose to the tip of the forefinger, and a foot is, well, a foot. The result is intuitive, suited to ordinary needs, and lends itself to approximation, best guesses, and the rough and ready nature of daily life, which is governed literally by rules of thumb. And when the imperial units are discarded, it makes it all that much easier to ignore human scale in our buildings and surroundings, which leads in turn to the impersonal, alienating nature of so much modern architecture and design.

Anyway, that’s the end of that rant, and even if you don’t agree, I hope you’ll grant that there are reasons beyond simple laziness or inertia for wanting to preserve the inch, foot, and mile. (I’m aware that this is an unpopular stance: Reddit has a post this morning making fun of America’s “arbitrary retarded” system of measurement, and although the commenters have risen in defense of both the Fahrenheit scale and writing our dates with the month first, I don’t see a single voice in favor of imperial measures.) If the body has a head, as Gustav Eckstein famously said in his book of the same name, it’s equally true that the head has a body, and it’s inseparable from the way we interact with the world. When we forget this, we run the risk of making larger mistakes that have nothing to do with remembering the number of pints to a gallon. We accommodate ourselves to measurements we’ve imposed, rather than starting with the body and working our way out, and although it may seem chauvinistic for us as a species, it’s just a way of acknowledging that we all experience the world with human eyes and hands.

The author's copy of Proust

That’s true of how we write as well. Poetic meter is intimately connected to the rhythms of circulation and respiration, and even in prose, a sentence is generally the longest stretch of words we can say before taking a breath. If we divide pages into paragraphs, it’s partially to provide a logical structure, but it’s also because our eyes can’t deal with an uninterrupted wall of text. Chapters and other divisions within a story were originally the size of a scroll that could be comfortably held, and more recently, they’ve come to represent a unit that can be easily read within a particular stretch of time, whether it’s a single sitting or an evening of reading aloud. Constraints that arise out of necessity or convenience inevitably acquire syntactic meaning. If we think in sentences or paragraphs, it’s because the necessity of breathing between statements encouraged us to break up what we said into manageable chunks, which also creates a natural pause for consolidation or comprehension. (This may be part of the reason why I’m irrationally opposed to semicolons. We talk in commas, dashes, and periods, and the semicolon is the mark of a text that is only meant to be read.)

You could extend these analogies to most other forms of creative expression, from painting to music and finally to dance, which is the ultimate culmination of an approach to art that bases its assumptions on the form and capabilities of the human body. Within every medium, of course, there are artists who deliberately undermine and challenge our senses of scale, and when we’re confronted with an unnaturally long sentence—whether in an action scene in Thomas Harris or an introspective paragraph by Proust—it changes the way we engage with the material, either because we forget to breathe or because we need to breathe all the more. But this requires an understanding and appreciation of why those proportions are there in the first place, and even for those of us who are largely content to operate within these constraints, it helps to occasionally reacquaint ourselves with where they come from. That’s one reason why writers are often encouraged to read their work aloud: not only does it oblige us to slow down, to pay more attention to rhythm, and to experience our words using a range of senses, but it reconnects us to the fundamental way in which ideas and images are expressed, moment by moment, and one breath at a time.

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

4 Responses

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  1. In my experience, the issue of metric v. imperial measures is one entirely based on first exposure. After almost a decade living abroad, I’ve adapted to many things, big and small, that I never thought I’d get used to (C°, calendars starting on Mondays, slower pace of life, using tiny towels / glasses, etc.) but I will never stop think in feet and pounds.

    My mother, a native of a metric land, recently commented that an inch seemed silly in every possibly way: distance it measures, name, historical source. She lived in the US for almost half her life and never adopted any of the “ridiculous ways” and I, while not planning on ever going back, will never give them up. (Though I wish I could. They _are_ more rational and civilized-seeming, less arbitrary.)

    le cul en rows

    March 19, 2014 at 12:14 pm

  2. I think you’re absolutely right that first exposure counts for a lot. But I still feel that there are reasonable arguments on both sides, and preferring to use imperial units doesn’t necessarily make you some kind of Luddite.


    March 19, 2014 at 6:31 pm

  3. Syllables. ‘Mile’ vs ‘kilometre’, ‘inch’ vs ‘centimetre’. ‘Acre’ vs ‘hectare’. As a scientist, I think the imperial system is idiotic — within science. (As Abe Simpson said (from memory), “My car gets eight furlongs to the hogshead, and that’s just the way I like it.”)

    But, for every golfer who talks about a three metre putt there are ten refer to a ten-footer. It just rolls off the tongue. It’s not just the sizes of the units that are ‘natural’ for us in our lives, it is the words themselves, hammered out by blacksmiths and farmers not coined by scientists. Inch. Acre. Mile. Pound. One syllable, colloquial, informal. If I had to settle on one system, it would be SI (, not because the metre is a sensible length but because the units interrelate logically.

    But for idiomatic force, even poetry, the Imperial units sound much better. Having said that, when is the US going to start using full sized pints and gallons? At least a litre is a litre is a litre (unless you are uncivilised enough to call it a ‘liter’.)


    March 21, 2014 at 3:32 am

  4. That’s a beautiful point—those are some nice Anglo-Saxon words. And I will grant that there’s something pleasing about SI’s elegance.


    March 22, 2014 at 8:39 pm

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