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View Full Version : How do you handle units of measurement in SF&F?



danatcsimpson
02-13-2016, 08:13 AM
This is such a minor thing, and I have no idea why it bothers me so much, but how do you indicate length, weight, time, volume, etc. in created worlds that do not use current standards of measurement?

I've seen this handled at least four ways (I'm probably missing some), with various pros and cons.

1) 'Translate' them to regular measurements.
Pros: so easy for readers to wrap their heads around. Cons: can throw readers out of a story if modern terms are used anachronistically, especially in dialogue.

2) Use an archaic system to evoke a particular setting.
Pros: tends to sound natural in dialogue, lends the setting flavor. For example, the furlong to indicate length in a pseudo-Medieval English setting. Cons: can be obscure enough to confuse some readers.

3) Use a completely invented system.
Pros: sounds completely natural in dialogue unless your conlang is shitty. Cons: unless you're reeeeally good at giving contextual clues, no one knows what you're talking about. Also you have to invent a system of measurement, which is interesting only to armchair metrologists.

4) Avoid the whole mess entirely by never referencing the units themselves.
Pros: it's easy and smooth. Say something is the size of a baby's fist and everyone knows what you mean. Cons: gets awkward if your characters are giving or receiving directions. Sometimes the circumlocution gives me a headache, too.

What's your favorite strategy?

ManInBlack
02-13-2016, 10:05 AM
I take it on a case by case. If they're even remotely human, I'm likely to use the metric system. I still get oddly weirded out by futuristic societies using Imperial measurements.

Feidb
02-13-2016, 10:09 AM
Make up my own but have them make sense so the reader isn't constantly scratching their head or translating.

arikdiver
02-13-2016, 11:40 AM
The sci-fi I'm writing is future Earth, so I use metric. I think I probably would always use metric for sci-fi regardless, but that's just me.

If not earth, so for fantasy (of which I have a stalled WIP) I make up my own. Some examples:
Weight - Scales might be used to weigh a handful of iron against a handful of gold. So the iron if it's "common" is the standard weight and given a name (usually in the language of the people).
time - usually by position of the sun/moon/stars.
Volume I've not had to use yet. For length I'd use an arm's length etc.
If giving directions, you could always say something like: over the river, past the forest, it's a half day's ride to the castle (or wherever they're going). You could swap the ride to whatever mode of transport they're using.

Brian G Turner
02-13-2016, 01:25 PM
For fantasy I've mainly used common imperial measurements with a couple of ancient ones, where relevant. IMO this aims to reach a balance of using older period terms, while still being reasonably familiar enough to a modern audience. Terms such as "furlong" are definitely out as being meaningless to most readers, and if a term may not be entirely clear, then some sort of provision for context when first raising it can be helpful.

For science fiction you're looking at a whole load of pain if you significantly move away from most terminology, simply because a writer is often dependent upon these to communicate consistency - especially if you're introducing new tech that a reader needs to be able to reasonably grasp. Most won't blink an eye if you mention something like a light-year, but if you say something is 3.867 Krapchas away, you're in danger of kicking the reader out of the text in order to try and understand it.

PeteMC
02-13-2016, 06:37 PM
Metric works fine and makes sense for SF.

For fantasy I prefer to read familiar Imperial measurements rather than have to try and figure out how much a Talent is worth or whether a half Gill measure is a big drink or a small one, or if I can ride twenty leagues in a day or not. Those are all real historical measures, but I and I would assume most readers aren't really familiar with them.

danatcsimpson
02-13-2016, 07:52 PM
I take it on a case by case. If they're even remotely human, I'm likely to use the metric system. I still get oddly weirded out by futuristic societies using Imperial measurements.

Metric is the go-to for future-earth or societies that sprang from earth, definitely. Hopefully by the time we start colonizing space our dumb country will have stopped using Imperial units because WTF. Besides us, it's Liberia and Myanmar.

Opinions seem split on the fantasy side. I have a hard time remembering how many feet are in a mile, never mind keeping track of equivalencies for an invented system. Context, context, context, I guess.

_TOG_
02-14-2016, 02:43 AM
Metric. Even the United Staes is moving to metric, but it's inch-by-inch. :D

Actually, it depends on the story. The current work in progress is mainly on Earth, so metric works fine. Off-planet with non-humans is either made up or skillfully avoided.

mirandashell
02-14-2016, 02:48 AM
Just as an aside, we Brits use Imperial and Metric, depending on what we're measuring. But officially, it's Metric.

In sci-fi, I'd use metric. The vast majority of readers won't blink at it. The last time I noticed a different system in use was Farscape. But it mostly for time and distance and easy to work out.

_TOG_
02-14-2016, 02:56 AM
Just as an aside, we Brits use Imperial and Metric, depending on what we're measuring. But officially, it's Metric.

In sci-fi, I'd use metric. The vast majority of readers won't blink at it. The last time I noticed a different system in use was Farscape. But it mostly for time and distance and easy to work out.

Really? What do you still use the Imperial system for?

Roxxsmom
02-14-2016, 03:21 AM
I went with a sort of hybrid. I use things like "stride" and "hand" and "knuckle length" for smaller measures, but I'm wavering between leagues and miles for longer (I think if I use miles, most will assume something close to modern miles as still used in the US, not Roman miles or something).

I tend to avoid exact distance references, though, and instead use things like "an easy day's ride" or "an hour's walk." I'm not sure what to use for weights, though in the stories I've written so far, I haven't needed to reference them.

I was originally going to go with stones and tonnes, since I was originally shooting for an English feel with the society where most of the story takes place, but I'm trying to expunge that and go for something that doesn't evoke a particular culture at all, since everyone and their dog is saying they're sick of British feeling fantasy (it's my comfort food, but really, my vaguely matriarchal culture isn't terribly British anyway). The only time I may need to reference exact size (as in feet) and weight is with ships, maybe, as I've got something in the works where they'll be on a warship, and they were often referred to by length and by how much displacement they had. But I could just go with the number of decks or guns instead.

Captcha
02-14-2016, 03:23 AM
Really? What do you still use the Imperial system for?

Canada's like this, too.

Height and weight of a person is almost always imperial. Distance driven in a car is probably metric, but a casual estimate might be imperial. Measures of alcohol are generally imperial (a 40, an ounce, a pint, etc.) but of other things, like gasoline and milk, are metric.

I think it's partly because we're so close to the US - we know imperial because of them, so there's no big push to switch to metric across the board.

Brightdreamer
02-14-2016, 03:26 AM
Really? What do you still use the Imperial system for?

Measuring margarine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkKOgs7Tdzw), I expect. ;)

As an American, I've been hearing how we're going metric since grade school. I'm 40, and still don't see it. (But, then, I also grew up hearing how a local volcano, Mr. Baker, was going to blow its top any minute now... which also is still there, unblown, and no longer really talked about. These days, it's Rainier that's "due.")

King Neptune
02-14-2016, 06:41 AM
I seldom use units of measurement, but I love to read odd units being put to use. One of the few things I can remember about Journey to the Center of the Earth by Verne was that the main characters hired an Icelander who was famous for collecting eider down, and the guide used Icelandic miles, which are roughly equal to 17 English miles. As in, "It's about a mile down the road."

Running into old Russian units is also interesting.

King Neptune
02-14-2016, 06:47 AM
As I understand it, the U.S.A. did officially convert to the so-called metric system quite a while ago, but the normal units can still be used, if metric units are also on the thing. It would have been a lot easier for everyone, if the meter had been defined as 40 inches, instead of 39.37 inches, then both could be side by side and easily converted.

But if someone hadn't redefined either the ounce or the inch (I can't remember which), then one cubic inch would still equal one fluid, and that would equal ounce avoirdupois. But one ounce is 1.04 cubic inches now.

MonsterTamer
02-14-2016, 06:59 AM
When I see metric measurements in a text I skip right over them. If the author says something like, "so and so walked X kilometers," I think in my head - I know the conversion to miles. If it's not terrible or a common one like 5 km is close to 3 miles I can do it. Buuuuut....I'm not going to convert mid-stream. So I ignore it. I just figure they walked a while.

If you tell me a character drank a 2-liter of Coke, I'm totally with you. That's common. But it's about the only thing that is.

Roxxsmom
02-14-2016, 07:22 AM
Really? What do you still use the Imperial system for?

I remember reading somewhere that bananas are still sold via the imperial system over there. No idea if this is true, or why bananas are special among all fruits.

The US is still officially "old English" with regards to things like road signs, commerce and so on. Road signs and speed limits are still in mph, for instance, and your doctor gives you your weight in pounds, not your mass in kilograms. If you land at a US airport, the pilot will give you the ground temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (in Canada, they give in in Celsius, and their road signs and speed limits are in km). Science is metric, but engineering is often in old English, which is why one of our Mars orbiters faile (http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9909/30/mars.metric.02/)d (someone forgot to do a conversion).

Albedo
02-14-2016, 07:23 AM
^ Same, but the other way. I've got no idea how much a gallon, a pound or an ounce are. I can sort of picture an inch in my head. I know a mile is roughly 1.6 km, but it's rare I'll actually try to do the maths in my head.

Albedo
02-14-2016, 07:26 AM
I remember reading somewhere that bananas are still sold via the imperial system over there. No idea if this is true, or why bananas are special among all fruits.

The US is still officially "old English" with regards to things like road signs, commerce and so on. Road signs and speed limits are still in mph, for instance, and your doctor gives you your weight in pounds, not your mass in kilograms. If you land at a US airport, the pilot will give you the ground temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (in Canada, they give in in Celsius, and their road signs and speed limits are in km). Science is metric, but engineering is often in old English, which is why one of our Mars orbiters faile (http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9909/30/mars.metric.02/)d (someone forgot to do a conversion).

Even American science, or at least medicine, uses different units to the rest of the world, though they're technically metric. For instance, the USA still reports a lot of biochemistry tests in mg/dL, whereas everywhere else has switched to mmol/L.

Roxxsmom
02-14-2016, 07:29 AM
Even American science, or at least medicine, uses different units to the rest of the world, though they're technically metric. For instance, the USA still reports a lot of biochemistry tests in mg/dL, whereas everywhere else has switched to mmol/L.

True. We get our medical reports for blood sugar in mg/dl for instance. We like to be weird for some reason. The fact that the rest of the world does something differently generally strengthens our conviction that our own way is best.

MonsterTamer
02-14-2016, 07:50 AM
The fact that the rest of the world does something differently generally strengthens our conviction that our own way is best.

Probably.

I'd like to teach my children the way everybody else understands weights and measures (as soon as I learn it myself) but there would be very little applicability. I know America "officially adopted" the metric system decades ago, but I honestly doubt it will change in my lifetime. Or my children's.

MonsterTamer
02-14-2016, 07:53 AM
Oh! I thought of another unit I understand - a bottle of wine is 750 mL. Which is largely understood around here to mean two healthy 12 oz glasses.

blacbird
02-14-2016, 08:00 AM
Most people in the U.S. today are fully cognizant of both the old imperial units and the metric system. It's really not that big a problem anymore. But some important things (vehicle speed limits, for example) are still universally expressed in miles-per-hour. That's one of the reasons I love to drive in Canada: On highways the signs say you get to go 100.

caw

Roxxsmom
02-14-2016, 08:12 AM
We do a measurement lab at the beginning of every semester, and you'd be surprised at how many young college students don't know how to use metric and how many weren't even introduced to it in K-12.

blacbird
02-14-2016, 08:16 AM
Just for info, the U.S. military entirely uses metric, and has done so for a long time. A common slang in Vietnam for distance was a "klick", which meant a kilometer.

caw

Primus
02-14-2016, 10:10 AM
Just for info, the U.S. military entirely uses metric, and has done so for a long time. A common slang in Vietnam for distance was a "klick", which meant a kilometer.
I always wondered what that meant. Now I know! Thanks!

For my WIP I use the imperial system. And that's because the country that my WIP largely takes place in is a derivative of America, so I use that for parallelism; one of the things. Inventing a new system of measurement is a bit too excessive for me. I choose to stick with something familiar rather than force the reader (and myself) to learn a new standard of distance, weight, volume, et al. It's highly unnecessary to me. I do like analogies for things like distance and time though. Example: How long it would take a team of oxen to furrow twenty acres (which I have no idea).

snafu1056
02-14-2016, 11:08 AM
One of the more interesting units of distance I ever read about was the "shout", which is the amount of distance a human shout can carry. Not very exact or scientific, but acceptable for a primitive setting.

In most cases, for low-tech settings I'll just talk in terms of days traveled rather than units of distance. "That's three days west of here" sounds more natural to me than "ride 12 kilometers west", which sounds too modern. Or I might have people travel by landmark. "Follow this river until you come to a hill shaped like a skull", then go west until you reach a village called Florp", that sort of thing. That's more in line with the way people actually traveled back when maps and compasses were rare items.

PeteMC
02-14-2016, 04:24 PM
Really? What do you still use the Imperial system for?

England is nuts with this - you buy petrol by the litre but your car's fuel efficiency is in miles per gallon. You weigh yourself in "stones" - a stone is 14 pounds - and your jeans are sized in inches, but the doctor weighs you in kilos and asks for your height in centimetres even though you know you're five foot 10. Go to the hardware store and you can buy 2 by 4, but only in metre lengths. I kid you not.

King Neptune
02-14-2016, 08:00 PM
I remember reading somewhere that bananas are still sold via the imperial system over there. No idea if this is true, or why bananas are special among all fruits.

The US is still officially "old English" with regards to things like road signs, commerce and so on. Road signs and speed limits are still in mph, for instance, and your doctor gives you your weight in pounds, not your mass in kilograms. If you land at a US airport, the pilot will give you the ground temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (in Canada, they give in in Celsius, and their road signs and speed limits are in km). Science is metric, but engineering is often in old English, which is why one of our Mars orbiters faile (http://www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9909/30/mars.metric.02/)d (someone forgot to do a conversion).

The U.S. is officially implementing the metric system, but the use of the continuing presnt is significant. The fifty states also have their own laws and regulations on labeling, etc.

http://www.nist.gov/pml/wmd/metric/index.cfm
or the weights page
http://www.nist.gov/pml/wmd/index.cfm

Bolero
02-14-2016, 08:40 PM
For fantasy I'd go with miles and pounds. But be a lot vaguer about time and appointments because most people don't have watches. If there is a system of ringing church/temple bells at mid-day, or at regular intervals, you could work that in. That is seriously under-done in fantasy. Time only became so noticed, when factories with shift systems and railways with timetables became common.
For science fiction - light years? :)

In terms of the UK, road signs and speed is still in miles and miles per hour. I was taught to cook and shop by someone who thought in pounds and ounces, so generally use that for food - my eyeball is calibrated.
Shops are supposed to only sell in kgs - but older customers hate that. For a time, the trading standards department at the local councils was rigidly enforcing kgs only, but there were court cases and now both are being used - as in a sign in a grocers will say so much per lb, and so much per kg, on the label on every box of vegetables.
I think there are moves afoot to do away with half a dozen, and a dozen, eggs, because it is not as standardised as buying a weight of eggs - but doh, you can open the box and see how big the blinking eggs are......
And that would be doubly nuts, since pre-packaged apples and oranges are often sold by the bag, not by the weight.
And I mess up the system, by weighing the bag of fruit, to find out how much it is per kg, to be able to compare the price to the big boxes of weigh it yourself fruit. I get solemnly told by shop assistants that I don't need to weigh it because the price is set. I then explain what I am doing and get an "oh".

In terms of cooking, and the timing of it before there were household clocks, then it would be specified to chant say a paternoster three times - so you got a prayer in while doing your cooking. Good quality multi-tasking.

danatcsimpson
02-14-2016, 09:27 PM
For fantasy I'd go with miles and pounds. But be a lot vaguer about time and appointments because most people don't have watches. If there is a system of ringing church/temple bells at mid-day, or at regular intervals, you could work that in. That is seriously under-done in fantasy. Time only became so noticed, when factories with shift systems and railways with timetables became common.


You are so right on the time thing. It's something we in the modern world take for granted (and, yep, a lot of people writing fantasy ignore). Only the rich, the scholarly, or the mechanically inclined had anything resembling a firm grasp on measuring the passage of time until just a few hundred years ago. The miniseries How We Got to Now (http://www.pbs.org/show/how-we-got-now/) illustrated this beautifully.
(http://www.pbs.org/show/how-we-got-now/)

snafu1056
02-15-2016, 12:00 AM
The Chinese had a clever device called an incense clock. It was a large block or disc of wood with a complex maze-like or spiraling pattern carved into it. The carved pattern would be filled with incense powder, which burned at a slow, consistent rate, and as the powder burned through the pattern it would pass notches indicating which hour it was (their day had 12). Further notches could even break hours down into smaller portions that became known as "notches" (I believe a "notch" was about 15 minutes). They also used certain types of chords that also burned at a consistent rate to keep time. And of course in walled cities there were drum and bell-towers that sounded off the watches of the day.

Roxxsmom
02-15-2016, 01:09 AM
For fantasy I'd go with miles and pounds. But be a lot vaguer about time and appointments because most people don't have watches. If there is a system of ringing church/temple bells at mid-day, or at regular intervals, you could work that in. That is seriously under-done in fantasy. Time only became so noticed, when factories with shift systems and railways with timetables became common.
For science fiction - light years? :)

They have clock towers in my fantasy setting. Those became a thing in Europe in the later middle ages. Actually, the need to coordinate religious and prayer services was a big motivation for this long before shift work became a big consideration (I'm guessing that before the earliest clock towers, maybe priests would watch the sky or a sundial or something and manually ring the prayer bells when needed).

Time zones weren't needed until they started to have train travel and telegraph in the 19th century.

In the fantasy world I'm currently writing in (technology roughly equivalent to later 1600s to maybe early 1700s), they have clocks (and even watches), though poorer folks wouldn't have them most likely. One of my characters is a healing student, and she has duty (I don't exactly know what word to use besides shifts, though that's a word that wasn't coined until the 1800s with reference to factory work) shifts at the infirmary at her university. She also has classes to attend, so she needs to keep track of time day and night. The university has a clock tower that chimes hours, half hours and quarter hours. I'm assuming that universities in the real world also made use of clock towers from a fairly early age for the purposes of coordinating lessons, lectures, prayers, and class meetings, and maybe they had human bell ringers or something before then.

I do avoid referencing seconds as a go-to measure of very short time. The concept exists in this world (in fact, it's existed in ours since ancient times), but I'm guessing that in a world that doesn't have second hands yet, it would not be the go-to "gut level" concept it is here. When needed, I reference the vaguer "moment" instead. (After several moments, she peeked over the top of the hedge).

This article on the history of timekeeping is interesting. They actually had many clever ways of doing this, going back to ancient times. Though I'm guessing that in rural communities, most people relied on sun position (and at night, the stars and moon with reference to its phases and rising and setting) to coordinate activities.

http://www.nist.gov/pml/general/time/early.cfm

ManInBlack
02-15-2016, 06:18 AM
Just for info, the U.S. military entirely uses metric, and has done so for a long time. A common slang in Vietnam for distance was a "klick", which meant a kilometer.

caw
Maybe for certain things. I remember a lot of physical fitness related things when I was in Air Force ROTC that involved inches. I never learned my height in meters or my mass in kilos, and we ran miles.

Mara
02-15-2016, 08:13 AM
I use metric, because made-up terms are more jarring for me. If it's a fantasy setting, I'll use "paces" but mean "meters." The exception is height, which I'll usually write in feet if I have to.

Jacob_Wallace
02-15-2016, 05:58 PM
I write science fantasy, and I use real world measurements. Metric of course because imperial units are stupid and the only they survived so long is due to habit. Mine is an alternate far future and not the past, so I see no reason not to use real measurements.

WriteMinded
02-15-2016, 06:44 PM
I write fantasy, not science fiction. I use paces to describe most distances or sizes of building and walls. A traveling distance, I measure in half-days, and full days, and sometimes hours. Heatbeats, winks, blinks, sneezes, handbreadths, fingers, fingersbreadths, arm's length, sword's length, stone's throw, spit, etc.

KaseetaKen
02-15-2016, 07:46 PM
In the novel I am currently writing about the colonization of a near Earth object, I chose to use metric and light minutes to describe volumes and distances. Time was more interesting. I have three cities on the lunar surface and each use a different time zone. In fact, I have differing time zones being used by each dome dependent upon where the main office of the corporation is based.
Zedong City is based upon the time zone of Peking. Armstrong City uses GMT but Armstrong Mining uses EST and the Eurospace Dome uses CET. Tycho City uses PST. I imagine 3rd shift would tend to live in a time zone that put their nights and days right for their internal clocks. So that for them, they were going to work in the morning. The result in dialogue is interesting because they resort to the forms of greeting that have neutral connotations, ie Hello, Goodbye, Shalom or Aloha. and Good night, good morning and good afternoon become obvious indications of an Earther.

JRHardesty
02-22-2016, 02:34 AM
Being confirmed metrical Luddites, we eschew the use of that system. In our works (fantasy), elevation/distance is given in feet or miles as appropriate, although long distances are more normally given, when given, in terms of travel time. Haven't had the need to use inches so far. Time tends to be given as "turns of the hour" or as a period of the day (mid of night, mid of day, etc.). Volume measures (pint, quart, gallon) are generally not used except the all-important pint, for how else can one order up one's ale??

WriteMinded
02-22-2016, 08:06 PM
Being confirmed metrical Luddites, we eschew the use of that system. In our works (fantasy), elevation/distance is given in feet or miles as appropriate, although long distances are more normally given, when given, in terms of travel time. Haven't had the need to use inches so far. Time tends to be given as "turns of the hour" or as a period of the day (mid of night, mid of day, etc.). Volume measures (pint, quart, gallon) are generally not used except the all-important pint, for how else can one order up one's ale??Mid of night, mid of day, I like. As for ale, anything will do. A mug of ale? A tankard. A skin? A barrel?

SillyLittleTwit
02-23-2016, 03:10 PM
I think it depends on circumstances. In my current work - which is at the weirder end of fantasy - the unit of distance is the furlong, which means you end up with millifurlongs (20cm) and centifurlongs (2m).

danatcsimpson
02-23-2016, 10:01 PM
I think it depends on circumstances. In my current work - which is at the weirder end of fantasy - the unit of distance is the furlong, which means you end up with millifurlongs (20cm) and centifurlongs (2m).

Now I want to know how your society developed for that to happen. Metric madness!

Richard White
02-23-2016, 10:17 PM
You are so right on the time thing. It's something we in the modern world take for granted (and, yep, a lot of people writing fantasy ignore). Only the rich, the scholarly, or the mechanically inclined had anything resembling a firm grasp on measuring the passage of time until just a few hundred years ago. The miniseries How We Got to Now (http://www.pbs.org/show/how-we-got-now/) illustrated this beautifully.
(http://www.pbs.org/show/how-we-got-now/)

In one of my stories, I have my thief use a small sand clock (egg timer) to measure how long between rounds by the guards. The other thief working with her thinks she's insane for worrying about things like that until he nearly gets caught by a guard patrol she knew was coming. She doesn't care if it's 7:15 or 6:30, but she wants to know it's four turns of the timer before the guards return. *grin*

Dave Williams
02-28-2016, 05:10 AM
the USA still reports a lot of biochemistry tests in mg/dL, whereas everywhere else has switched to mmol/L.

Why change? In a few years the ISO will fiddle with the metric system again and it'll be called something else.

The People's Republic of California taught *only* metric when I went to school there. And not just one, but two *different* metric systems - mks and cgs. Which have been superceded by several different implementations of ISO metric, with all new names, and lots of new redundant units. We now measure pressure in kg/mm^3, Pascals, Torr, atmospheres, mm/Hg, and a couple of others.

Then there's the fulminating disaster of metric screw threads, which have no real standardization other than being dimensioned in metric units...

Dennis E. Taylor
02-28-2016, 06:09 AM
My MC is an engineer, so he tends to talk in metric when he's engineering, but occasionally slips in an imperial measurement.

The more interesting problem is with timekeeping on other planets. When you've got planets with rotations of 21h13m or 33h50m, how do you define your days? Years? Do you redefine the second so that your day is always 24hrs? If so, you have to rewrite most physical constants. If not, you have to invent a clock with a minute hand that goes around 21&13/60ths times in a day.

Dravid Mills
03-02-2016, 03:05 PM
Gidday I prefer one for sea and land the...
Nautical Mile - 1852 m ; originally defined as one minute of latitude.

Dravid

Blinkk
03-02-2016, 05:30 PM
I tend to avoid exact distance references, though, and instead use things like "an easy day's ride" or "an hour's walk." I'm not sure what to use for weights, though in the stories I've written so far, I haven't needed to reference them.


I go back and forth on whether or not an hour counts as modern measurement. In my fantasy stories I tend to reference time by the position of the sun. If I start saying "I'll meet you in three hours" then I feel like my characters could count each hour in a day and eventually end up saying, "see you at 6" and in a fantasy world that sounds a little jarring.

RKarina
03-02-2016, 07:33 PM
For the most part, I stick with metric, nautical, or archaic terms because they're relatively easy to understand, don't sound jarring in a story, and make sense (for the most part).

Time can be a tricky one, so the question is - does your SF&F universe have time telling devices or not? And are they commonly available?
The Romans and Israelites had some pretty basic measurements of time based on sunrise and sunset. Later in history, candles with marked points for the passage of hours were not uncommon. So the concept is easy to work into your universe.

You can use a combination of understood terms (like a day), along with less common (or made up ones) that you clarify with context (a moon span is pretty easy to grasp, and can easily be shortened to a span). I've got one book where the year is broken up into four seasons rather than months - it didn't take a lot of work to explain, and though I did figure out all the history and reasons and pseudo-science behind it, very little (like almost none) of that made it into the final work because it just wasn't necessary for understanding.

Your universe will do a lot to determine the amount of information you need to share. Even today, people in very rural environments often give directions more by landmark and euphemism than by specifics and measurements. I've actually been on the receiving end of directions that went something like this:

You get off the four-lane and head down the road a piece. Hang a right when you come to the old red barn then veer left at the big oak. Cross the crick and keep going till you get to town. We're three houses up river.

(note, I'm not even going to attempt writing out what it actually sounded like with the thick accent)

AJMarks
03-02-2016, 11:39 PM
It depends. If I'm going fantasy, I'll go more along the lines of Imperial, if science fiction, metric type measurements. Many times I'll keep with the units we know instead of making something up.

KaseetaKen
03-09-2016, 09:35 PM
In a pre-mechanical clock period they used decan stars at night. As each decan star rose above the horizon, an hour or so passed. The reason we have 12 hours in a day is because of the decan stars (10) plus two more--one each for twilight and dawn.
They similarly divided the day with a sun dial which gave us 24 hours in a day.
Also, they tended to operate on 'watches.' Each day being divided into four day watches and four night watches. Hours were not standard because days grow longer in the summer and shorter in the winter.

jjdebenedictis
03-09-2016, 11:56 PM
Just for info, the U.S. military entirely uses metric, and has done so for a long time. A common slang in Vietnam for distance was a "klick", which meant a kilometer.
That's still very common in Canada.


But some important things (vehicle speed limits, for example) are still universally expressed in miles-per-hour. Canada also retains Imperial measurements in some odd places. A person's height and weight are usually expressed in feet/inches and pounds. Pizza size is given in inches. Recipes are usually never in metric.

But speeds, temperatures, distances? Yes, those are all metric.

And y'all can stop using Fahrenheit any damned time, as far as I'm concerned. When you say it's 70 degrees out, I have no freakin' clue what that means. Hot? Cold? To me, it's quite a bit hotter than any daytime temperature recorded on Earth that didn't involve being in proximity to magma.

snafu1056
03-10-2016, 10:31 PM
And y'all can stop using Fahrenheit any damned time, as far as I'm concerned. When you say it's 70 degrees out, I have no freakin' clue what that means. Hot? Cold? To me, it's quite a bit hotter than any daytime temperature recorded on Earth that didn't involve being in proximity to magma.

Just add about 50 degrees to figure out the fahrenheit. Actually the spread widens the further up the thermometer you go. 0c = 32f, and by the time you get to 40c, that's like 100f. Our triple-digit heat waves are your 40s. Our 40's are your teens. Right now in NYC it's in the 20's in early March! Which is the 70s to us. Can we both get along without driving each other crazy? (cue Odd Couple theme song)

King Neptune
03-10-2016, 11:08 PM
Yeah, we should switch to the Kelvin scale for temperature, except that Fahrenheit is so convenient, so maybe we should just drop Celsius.