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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 of the survey 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.
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