‘metre’ and ‘meter’

If I get a technical paper or report to edit I usually ask which dictionary/spelling system you’re using (actually, I ask everyone this) and whether you’re working in SI units. 

Here’s something almost everyone stumbles over, every now and then—the difference between meter and metre. If you’re local, I tend to assume you’re using British English, since that’s what we use in school. For those of you spelling things the American way, there’s no issue at all since American English only uses meter.

The metre is a measurement unit, the base SI unit for length. The unit with all its metric prefixes use the same spelling: centimetre, kilometre, micrometre. Same goes for the derived units: acceleration is metre per second squared.  

A meter, on the other hand, is an instrument you use to measure something. A barometer measures atmospheric pressure; an ammeter measures electric current. The water meter outside your house measures how much water you use each month. You no longer need to feed coins into parking meters because city councils have switched to using coupons or apps.

Spellcheckers (or even grammar checkers) are unlikely to catch the mistake if you use one word for the other. In technical papers, the chances of making this mistake are actually smaller since units are usually written in symbols (km, cm, µm; m·s–2), but it’s always good to keep this in mind when you’re proofreading your submissions.

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