The difference between “metre” and “meter”

“Metre” is the British spelling of the unit of length equal to 100 cm, and “meter” is the American spelling of the same unit. However, “meter” is also used in British English, but it means something different.

A “meter” in British English is an instrument for measuring. You have several of them at home – a water meter, a gas meter and an electricity meter. The man with a clipboard who rings your doorbell when you’re just about to step into the shower on a Saturday morning has come to read your meter. And you put money into them when you park on the side of the road in the city centre – parking meters. “Meter” also has this meaning in American English.

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17 Responses to The difference between “metre” and “meter”

  1. SC says:

    It is not the British spelling, it is the French. They invented it and the British are not arrogant enough to change another country’s spelling of a word.

  2. chicken says:

    very good

  3. egg says:

    even better

  4. Bans says:

    That’s true

  5. Thanks, my science teacher was spelling it differently and now I can correct him. Ha! In your face Science Teacher! (Not giving out his real name for privacy reasons).

  6. John says:

    I am surprised at you guys.
    Metre is from the Greek Μετρον, (metron) meaning measure. It has been used from 1000bc to date. Also the verb is Metro which means I measure. So the correct is definitely metre. Cheers

    • John – Interesting contribution – thanks. But neither “meter” nor “metre” is incorrect. They are English words (not Greek words) with slightly different usages in British and American English. I assume you’re correct in pointing out that they derive from Greek, but that’s the entirety of their connection to Greek. They’re English words now and we spell them as English words.

      • Prineas John says:

        I acknowledge your point. Usage makes the changes over the years. Same applies to CENTRE and CENTER. etc….
        Cheers.

      • victormollo says:

        Depending on your definition of English. As it is a physical standard, I would go with the SI and say that metre is correct. And yes, that is not English it is French.

        For me it is like Microsoft introducing the backslash as a divider, rather than Unix’s forward slash. They wanted to be different, to establish their own standard. Nobody benefitted.

      • tstcikhthys says:

        Regardless of which words they are or what their etymologies are, the words in the SI are not common English words which are subject to dialectal variation as are centre/center, colour/color, etc.; they are defined in a specification, so what the specification says is what the spelling is. And since the SI is published in English and French, there is only one way to spell SI units in those languages. In English, the base unit of length is “metre”; using “meter” to refer to this unit is simply incorrect.

        This is similar to how spelling the words “aluminium”, “caesium”, and “sulfur” as “aluminum”, “cesium”, and “sulphur” is incorrect because the IUPAC controls these words and has standardized on the former spellings.

      • John says:

        Good comments. As for sulphur… My observation on the letters ‘ph’ representing the sound and letter ‘f’, in the English language. ‘PH’ is usually used for words that come from the Greek. ie, physics, pharmcy philosophy, etc. Words from Latin use ‘f’.

      • Thanks for your comment tstcikhthys. I have to take issue with you, though, when you say that ‘using “meter” to refer to this unit is simply incorrect’. In American English “meter” does mean a base unit of length, whether you like it or not. And it is the correct spelling – just as it is in German and Dutch. Other spellings are also possible – it’s “metr” in Polish, “metras” in Lithuanian, and “metru” in Romanian etc etc.

        As for IUPAC’s standardised spellings – I’m all for it. But that doesn’t mean the old spellings are incorrect; they’re just alternatives. “Sulphur” will continue to be correct in British English until it falls out of favour with the general populace so much that it’s listed in the dictionary as an archaic spelling.

      • tstcikhthys says:

        @barnabyharward: That is exactly my point: it doesn’t matter what I like or you like. When it comes to specifications, there are no dialects. If you’re familiar with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a language that is used to style web pages, you’ll know that the word is spelled “color”; spelling it as “colour” simply won’t work. The SI and IUPAC work in the same way.

        The US, like every other country in the world which uses the SI, has signed the Treaty of the Metre and/or is a member of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Part of being a signee/member is the stipulation that states that the BIPM is the sole entity that regulates the SI, and the BIPM officially publishes the SI in two languages: English and French. In these languages, deviating from the specification, including spelling, is not allowed.

        In all other languages (e.g., German, Dutch, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, etc. as you mentioned), because the SI is not published in those languages, only deviating from the definitions and symbols of the units is not allowed. So, for example, writing the unit name as “metro” in Spanish is allowed because the SI isn’t published in Spanish, but writing “кг” as the unit symbol for the kilogram in Russian, as is colloquially done, is not allowed and incorrect because symbols are universal in the SI and the symbol for the kilogram is “kg”.

        @John: Indeed, but it’s actually a historical transcription error. The original word referring to the element sulfur is “sulpur” (without the h) in Latin. Scribes mistakenly thought it came from Greek (the Greek word for sulfur is “theio”; completely different), so they changed it to “sulphur”. Given that this now looks and sounds Greek, people started pronouncing it as it would be in Greek with the “ph” as an “f”. Eventually, this mistranscription was ironically re-transliterated back into Latin as “sulfur” as per Latin orthographic rules, and “sulfur” and “sulphur” coexisted for a while, though “sulphur” was the more popular and traditional one. Noah Webster standardized on “sulfur” in the US, while the British kept the traditional “sulphur”, and we were where we were until the IUPAC standardized to “sulfur” in the 1990s. IMO, they should’ve righted this historical mistake and just standardized on “sulpur”, which is the proper Latin.

  7. robetc says:

    I deeply, deeply agree with you victormollo. I wouldn’t like to count the curses I have uttered from using the wrong slash character.

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