I'm writing SciFi in a hypothetical future where we Americans have finally switched to metric (hey, it's my world, I can make believe).

But being myself acculturated in imperial-units America, I'm having a hard time figuring out how to describe certain kinds of distances.

If something is a couple centimeters, no problem. If it's a couple meters, no problem. But what about something in between?

For example:

The ball bounced a few inches off the table.

I'm picturing six inches in my head. That's more like fifteen centimeters. If I said "a few centimeters" then it's not enough. But saying "it bounced fifteen centimeters" off the table is far too formal and precise.

So, how would a metric user conversationally describe a distance like that?

Another example:

The box was a couple feet wide.

I'm picturing 18 - 30", or 45-76cm. Would a native metric speaker just say "about a half meter?"

That sounds better and makes more sense to me, so I guess it's not as much of a problem.

Still, for the non-Americans out there, what do you use, conversationally, to describe intermediate distances that are more in the range of 10-35 cm, or 65-85cm, where "a couple inches" or "a couple feet" would be pretty accurate but "a couple centimeters" or "a couple meters" would not be.

Do people ever say "decimeters?" I've never heard anyone actually say that one, though it does fit the use case.


  • Unless you are extremely eccentric, you probably say "a few hundred feet" and not "maybe half a furlong", "30 or 40 miles" and not "around a dozen leagues", and "20 or 30 feet" and not "a rod or two". I don't think there's a real problem. Jul 30, 2016 at 13:07
  • Indeed, you may find the answer by turning the question around. How do imperial-users say things like "about one kilometer", "a few millimeters" or "a couple of liters"? "Metric-users" are used to their measurements, just like imperial-users are. They are not constantly thinking about converting weird things like feet, yards, inches, ounces and gallons into metric stuff; they do not wonder what "a couple of inches" would be in centimeters unless an American uses the expression.
    – oerkelens
    Jul 30, 2016 at 13:17
  • 1
    I think you guys are missing the question. The issue isn't to convert between units, the issue is I believe my character would have grown up using metric and would think in those terms, but I did not grow up in metric and do not think in those terms. When I try to express a distance of "a few inches" in casual metric, I find the gap between a centimeter and a meter is so large that I don't know how to describe things that come in between. Marv's answer, below, indicates one thing I suspected: that British people actually mix the systems for this reason.
    – Andrew
    Jul 30, 2016 at 13:48
  • +1 Good question. What I found both irritating and hilarious was seeing a sign in a national park that had formerly said 0.5 miles changed to 805 meters -- one digit precision changed to 3 digit precision.
    – ab2
    Jul 31, 2016 at 0:44
  • I realize it's probably no longer relevant to you but I found your point that the difference between an inch and a foot 1:12 is considerably less than a centimeter to a meter 1:100 and is bound to affect how people casually state distances. My personal experience, both here in Canada and visiting Europe, is that people usually use multiples of 10 (a ratio of 1:10). I can think of two exceptions: where the distance is less than 10 cm, or where a bit more precision is wanted and then it's usually multiples of 5, a couple of inches in your units.
    – Al Maki
    Feb 21, 2019 at 3:20

1 Answer 1


An interesting question that made me question my own usages (being from the UK, a supposedly metric country) and it made me realise it's not easy to answer.

As I am of a certain age I will freely mix my standards and will talk about "a few centimetres" when the distance is small, or "a few inches" when the distance is greater. Similarly I might talk about "a couple of feet" or "about half a metre" depending on my audience (former=older, latter=younger)...

But I suspect younger people may not have an appreciation of what an Inch actually looks like, other than by inference.

I can certainly visualise myself saying something like twenty or thirty "centimetres or so.." for the 5-6 inches distance. Or "around 20 centimetres..", or indeed any terms that imply "approximation"...

I have never ever heard anyone use the term "decimetres" though I know it is a perfectly accurate unit of length.

  • So if you tried to say: "The ball bounced a couple inches off the table," to a metric-only kid, do you think you'd say: "It bounced fifteen centimeters or so off the table" ? -- or, is it more like, you'd just say inches and they realize that inches are bigger than centimeters and that's just the antiquated unit that folks use to informally describe these in-between sizes?
    – Andrew
    Jul 30, 2016 at 13:50
  • As someone who's grown up using metric exclusively in one language and mostly Imperial in English, I would definitely, in my metric-only language, say something like, “The ball bounced fifteen or twenty centimetres off the table”. Decimetres are basically never used in spoken English, but some people do use them sometimes—Swedes, for example, make use of them. Jul 30, 2016 at 14:00
  • @Andrew .. Yeah.. I think I'd be more like to say the former (actually "it bounced 15 or so centimetres off the table"), these days after all, it is 45 years since we went metric in the UK, but it's still marginal for me- I could easily use the inches version as well! That probably doesn't help much, sorry!
    – Marv Mills
    Jul 30, 2016 at 15:50
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    In Britain metric has never been fully accepted, either officially or unofficially. Though it is legally required for weights and measures, beer is still sold by the pint, and milk in pint bottles. Road signs still express distances in miles, so circumstances can be miles better than before. The older generation, of which I'm one, still use such imperial metaphors - footballers still hit the net from 12 yards etc. And I think a lot of these are being handed down. But it can be taxing on the young. My son when he was a young boy would often bewilder me by asking how many metres in a mile!
    – WS2
    Jul 30, 2016 at 16:43
  • Given the discussion, I think this is a pretty good answer :) In my case I'm thinking of writing in the "near-future", say 30 years out or so. Your point that it's been 45 years since the metric conversion, yet the UK still uses both systems conversationally, is the most informative. I think that indicates it's realistic to imagine that, even if the US made the switch today, people would still be mixing the two systems for at least a generation or two.
    – Andrew
    Jul 30, 2016 at 19:12

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