+44 (0)1273 732 888
Spaces and units: 60-second fix
Author : Cathy Relf
Posted : 07 / 05 / 14
Recently a reader asked us whether it was correct to put a space between a number and a unit (eg ‘4 cm’), or to close them up (‘4cm’). Well, what a can of contradictory worms that turned out to be.
When it comes to units of measure, it seems some like to get up close and personal, while others prefer a little bit more space.
The short answer is that scientists are very strict about including a space, as are many academics, while journalists and non-scientific publishers tend to prefer to omit the space. Business writing falls somewhere in the middle, often influenced by how science-y (technical term) the company is.
The International Bureau of Weights and Measures takes a no-nonsense approach: ‘The numerical value always precedes the unit, and a space is always used to separate the unit from the number,’ it says.
The only exceptions it makes are for the unit symbols for degree, minute, and second – °, ‘ and ” respectively – which don’t need a space. Note, though, that this applies only to angles and geographical co-ordinates, not temperatures. ‘This rule means that the symbol °C for the degree Celsius is preceded by a space,’ adds the IBWM, as it lines up its perfectly sharpened pencils.
Outside of the International Bureau, however, people have loosened their ties a little. The UK Metric Association (UKMA) says: ‘Where there is room, leave a (non-breaking) space between the number and the unit – eg 25 kg, 100 m, 37 °C.’ (‘Non-breaking’ means the number and unit won’t be split if they fall at the end of a line of text.) This seems pretty sensible. In fact, if your workplace prefers a scientific style, you might like to bookmark the UKMA’s excellent Measurement units style guide. It’s concise, comprehensive and well laid out.
Loosening the tie a little more, and maybe even undoing a button if no-one’s looking, we move on to The Telegraph. ‘Use common British weights and measures even in foreign stories unless the context dictates otherwise. No full points, no plurals, no space between the number and the abbreviation.’
It makes an exception for abbreviations that may be confusing if closed up, eg 22sqyd or 20sqm – which become much more readable when written as 22 sq yd and 20 sq m.
Turning the tie into a jaunty bandana and spilling a little coffee down our shirts, we come to the Guardian. It’s far too cool to include spaces and units in its style guide, being more interested in martini recipes and the spelling of mangetout. However, it did concisely answer our question on Twitter, confirming that it too leaves out the space.
At Emphasis, our in-house style is also to leave out the space – we find it looks tidier and more modern. However, it’s a matter of preference, so find out what your company’s style is. If it doesn’t have one, it may be a good idea to set one up so that you’re consistent.
We surveyed our readers to find out how they felt about separating their figures and units. You can see the results here.
More 60-second fixes:
Cathy is a certified word and editing expert, having worked as a sub-editor, editor and copywriter at, to name a few, the Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Which? and The Grocer.
Posted by: Cathy Relf
20 / 03 / 12
Do you substitute one thing for another, or with another? Well, you can do both. But they have different meanings, writes Cathy Relf. You substitute the new for the old, but substitute the old with the new. The easiest way to get it right is to think of sport, where, if someone is injured, you […]
15 / 10 / 11
Ah, what a wonderful language English is. You can bear a child, bear a responsibility, ask someone to bear with you, bear a heavy load or bare your teeth. Confusion arises in the verb form, especially in the past tense. In the present tense, there are two spellings: bear and bare. to bear has two […]
Advice and tips (161)
Choose your words wisely (47)
Plain English (27)
Language abuse (22)
60-second fix (21)
Report writing (20)
Bids and tenders (19)
Reader-centred writing (17)
Online and social media (15)
Psychology and linguistics (13)
News from Emphasis (12)
Technical writing (12)
International issues (10)
Customer relations (9)
Presentations and speeches (9)
Numbers and finance (9)
Design and formatting (9)
Letters and CVs (8)
Writing for media (5)
Literacy and education (5)
Legal writing (4)
Writing news stories (4)
Style guide (4)
Development of English (4)
PDF downloads (3)
Courses for companies (2)
Pitches and proposals (2)
Conferences and exhibitions (2)
Book reviews (1)