Kilometers and miles

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Sometimes the obeisance to style guides by newspaper editors and journalists looks not so much craven as robotic. The Telegraph provides an example. Like many newspapers, it has a policy of reporting distances in kilometers but appending parenthesized equivalents in miles (it's a conservative newspaper, and is not going to push its mileage-oriented readers toward metric units any time soon). Often that's useful: when it reports that The behemoth Airbus A380 … is capable of carrying 544 passengers up to 15,200km (8,200 miles), the parenthetical suffix serves to assist metrically challenged Americans and older Brits in forming an idea of what 15,200 of those little bitty European kilometer things might amount to. (At least, it would have done if it were correct, but as Bruce Lin has pointed out to me, it's wildly wrong: 15,200 km = 15200/8 * 5 = 9,500 mi. They're off by 1,300 miles. They must have meant nautical miles: 15,200 km = 8207.34 NM. That could be a life-threatening error for a jetliner running low on fuel. But never mind; who's counting.) Sometimes, though, doing such conversions is rather less useful.

It was not nearly so sensible to print Their journey ended up stretching to 14 months and took them 6,000 kilometres (3,728 miles) in a story about a family bicycle ride. The 6,000 km figure was surely just a very rough estimate of the distance the family rode (hence the rounding to a figure ending in 000), so "3,728 miles" is absurdly over-specific.

But a story about a recent triple shooting in Imatra, Finland, clung to the usual policy despite its being utterly ridiculous in the context:

Imatra is a small lakeside town of 17,000 people in southeastern Finland, just a few kilometres (miles) from the Russian border.

Even the most metrically innumerate of us know what a kilometer is: it's a unit of distance smaller than a mile. Sometimes those of us who still think in terms of miles may need a conversion figure, but we don't need to be told that the relatively small but unimportant hence unspecified number of kilometers from Imatra to the Russian border corresponds to some relatively small but unimportant hence unspecified number of miles. We're not stoopid!

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