19

Would Americans say:

He sat down 9 feet from me.

or

He sat down 3 yards from me.

?

36
  • 38
    If the speaker was going to use feet, he'd almost certainly round it up to ...ten feet/foot from me (or a dozen). But with yards, he'd probably round down to ...a couple of yards from me (or a few). In such contexts, excessive precision means little, and tends to look odd. Jul 27 at 14:41
  • 6
    How do you know a modern American wouldn't say 'three metres'? Jul 27 at 15:43
  • 10
    If I were gonna say “3 yards” I’m pretty sure I’d actually say “a few yards”.
    – Tim
    Jul 28 at 10:01
  • 15
    "five paces yonder"
    – PatrickT
    Jul 28 at 10:06
  • 7
    'Meter' is the act of measurement (hence ohmmeter, multimeter), metre is the unit. Unlike some countries, God is clever enough to deal with homonyms ... Cups are metric, too (1c = 250g/250mL). @jamesqf what the heck is 'human scaled'? :-D. Imperial measurements are arbitrary - the human in question is whichever king decided the distance from his elbow to his extended middle finger was a 'cubit'
    – mcalex
    Jul 29 at 3:45

10 Answers 10

48

Feet is the more common, conversational usage in the U.S. Your speaker would say he sat nine feet away from me

Yards are often used to describe particular things that are traditionally measured in yards. Sports often use yards to describe distances. A football field is measured in yards. A golf hole is measured in yards. Foot races used to be measured in yards (meters now).

16
  • 26
    @ColleenV - Quite simply, if you were an American YOU WOULD NOT SAY, "My dad sat a yard and a half away from me." I appreciate your deference to the unknown but I've been speaking all over the U.S. for fifty years, a learner should not start giving distances in YARDS. EOM.
    – EllieK
    Jul 27 at 19:46
  • 8
    I am an American and I use yards when appropriate. Part of being fluent in a language is understanding what is appropriate for the context and not relying on silly rules that overly simplify things. Should a learner say 300 feet or 100 yards? If you think you can answer that without asking “Are they standing on a football field, you’re wrong.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 27 at 19:59
  • 7
    Appropriate being the operative word. A leaner should say 300 feet as a general rule. I have applied no silly rules, I merely state that feet is the appropriate measurement if unsure. If I said, "My dad sat 260 inches to my left. How far was your dad from you?," would you realize how inappropriate it is to say he sat a yard and half away?
    – EllieK
    Jul 27 at 20:04
  • 30
    I have to agree with this one - I'd never use yards unless it was specifically in a context where yards were common. Jul 27 at 22:39
  • 8
    @EllieK Americans are so fond of measuring things in football fields that, say, 582 feet might become "almost two football fields". 300 feet could sound better as 100 yards since they're imagining a football field. But that's situational and tricky for a learner to know when, and is still "use feet, unless you have some other reason, such as it reminds you of football". Jul 28 at 15:09
44

I am very much on board with FumbleFingers' comment. Suspecting neither, that most would call it "feet", but rather than being precise would instead say "about 10 feet". Accurate measures are really only used in contexts where they matter.

3
  • I agree, the only exceptions I've heard enough people use would be something (often a person) being around 6 or 3 feet away. I suspect that's because the average man is around 6ft (probably a little under) so it's a way of indicating something is around a "person's length" away from you. Jul 28 at 13:13
  • 1
    I wouldn't even say a number as an estimate. It'd just be "several yards away" (or "several meters away" if you're not in the US, they're close enough to make not much difference anyhow.) The only time you'd ever use specific numbers is if you want to draw attention to it like we've been hearing a lot of in recent years: "The CDC recommends keeping a distance of 6 feet to avoid spreading the virus." Jul 28 at 13:44
  • I agree, saying 10 feet is natural, 9 feet is not. Many of the goods sold in metric countries are cut in imperial units. So 30cm (12cm) tiles and 3 meter (10 foot) boards are familiar. I suspect the OP is unknowingly doing this: 10ft -> 3 meters -> 3 yards -> 9 feet. Better to just reverse the original conversion: 3 meters -> 10 feet. That preserves familiar approximations.
    – David42
    Aug 2 at 18:13
11

My initial thought was that feet would be much more commonly used. Ngrams backs that up.

2
  • 2
    But is that primarily because there are a lot more things that are built in feet? For instance, if I buy a standard piece of plywood (or siding, insulation, &c) it is 4 by 8 feet, a standard building stud is 8 feet long, and longer pieces of lumber are also sold in lengths that are some number of feet.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 28 at 5:00
  • @jamesqf I don't think so as my ngrams search would not likely pull up hits having to do with the lengths of things.
    – Kevin
    Jul 28 at 13:10
10

Either is idiomatic.

We tend to like more readily visualizable distances, an inch before a foot, a foot before a yard, a yard before a mile. But we also tend to like smaller numbers and whole numbers. We would be more likely to say 5 feet than 60 inches, but 18 inches rather than one and a half feet.

Between three yards and nine feet, I suspect it would be some of one and some of the other.

9
  • 9
    Would that "some" be six of one and half-a-dozen of the other? :) Jul 27 at 14:47
  • 3
    LOL. I wish I had thought of that, but perhaps it would have confused the issue. Jul 27 at 15:19
  • 1
    +1 Although, Texans would probably say 10 or 100 yards before 30 or 300 feet in some contexts because of football. How people say things depends heavily on where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re talking to and what they’re trying to communicate. If I’m telling a police officer the scary person was close to me I might use a “three arm lengths away”. Without more context it’s difficult to know what is the more likely thing someone would say.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 27 at 17:22
  • 6
    "but 18 inches rather than one and a half feet." I'm strongly dubious about that assertion. "A foot and a half" is much more common where I live.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 27 at 23:59
  • 4
    @RonJohn I'd say "18 inches" if I wanted to convey a relatively high level of precision, and "a foot and a half" if I was just indicating somewhere kinda halfway between one foot and two.
    – A C
    Jul 29 at 2:53
6

I don't think an American would try to be precise as '9 feet' unless it was somehow important. In the context of sitting distance it seems unimportant to me so it's more likely they'd say 'roughly 9 feet away' or 'about 9 feet away' than anything else. Now even more likely is that they round up to 10 feet as then it becomes clear that it's an estimate. If the context is football then I can see yards being used instead but otherwise yards feels out of place.

1
  • 1
    Normally I wouldn't say 9 feet in general. Usually I'd round to an even 10, unless it was exactly 9 feet and it mattered for the point of the conversation. Common distances would be 3 feet, 6 feet (normal height size), 10 feet, and increments of 5 or 10 feet past that
    – Cullub
    Jul 29 at 18:26
5

Relatively small distances (such as 9 feet/3 yards) would normally be given in feet, as yards introduce too much "slop" (plus or minus amount) for comfort. 3 yards would technically mean somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 yards (7.5 to 10.5 feet), which is too imprecise for most people when talking about such distances. 9 feet would be 8.5 to 9.5 feet, a precision that most people would be comfortable with. When you start getting up to longer distances (such as the length of a football field), the +/- precision loss due to using yards instead of feet becomes insignificant, compared to being able to use more convenient smaller numbers.

1
  • 1
    "longer distances (such as the length of a football field), the +/- precision loss due to using yards instead of feet becomes insignificant" - The length of an American football field is not a good example here, which is entirely based on yards (100 yards, divided into "yard lines"). It would be wrong to use "feet" here, but that has nothing to do with precision.
    – MrWhite
    Jul 30 at 18:05
5

In my experience, Americans rarely use yards as a unit of measurement in everyday conversation unless they're talking about golf, American football, or distances that are more than 50 feet or so.

1
  • 1
    "distances that are more than 50 feet" - although context still matters here. The height of mountains and how high the plane is flying, for example, is always described in feet, despite being more than tens of thousands of feet.
    – MrWhite
    Jul 30 at 21:56
3

The American measurement system developed in a way that there is a bit of overlap between units. Your example is in one of those regions where either would be appropriate and not unwieldy. There is some dependency on the setting as to which unit of measurement would be more appropriate.

Yards are typically used for outdoor measurements where the distances are larger, but not large enough to get into the mile ranges. Yards are also used by people that tend to participate in outdoor activities where they will have to estimate distances in the region where using the yard as a unit of measurement makes sense. These activities will include football, golf, sprinting, and the shooting sports.

When the setting indoors the room sizes, unless you are a in a massive room, don't give much opportunity to give measurements in yards. If you were outdoors, I would favor yards. When indoors, unless you are in one of those aforementioned rooms, or wanted to add some of that outdoor flavor, feet would be more appropriate.

Using yards in place of feet when the situation is neutral will also make a person appear more outdoorsy or sporty, as the overlap in units allows for some personal preference, and the word choice would reveal a greater familiarity with that unit.

1

The reality behind this question is that the normal answer would be "He sat down 10 feet from me".

An answer like "He sat down 9 feet from me" or "He sat down 3 yards from me" implies an intent to diminish the actual distance and paint the picture that the individual sat down in a very close proximity to the person making that statement.

-1

Neither!

Objective measurement is a concept expressed particularly well in "the metric system".... er, SI. But most of the communication that we're doing (outside of the sciences and engineering) is going to be subjective. Let me give a handful of examples:

So, if I'm trying to express that an individual sat down 108 inches away from me I would tend to express it in a way that communicates what I'm trying to. Are we in the middle of a desert, nothing else for days? Then I'm going to express it by saying that they "were within spittin' distance". Are we in the movie theater? I'd say that they "sat down three seats down from me". Are we on a date? "She sat down just far enough away that we couldn't have a conversation, I won't call her back".

The same goes for larger measurements, as well. 100 yards? We know that because it's a football field, so we might use that as the unit. If I'm talking to people around town I'd say "Half a block away" or "three houses down", if I'm talking to people at the farm I'd probably tell them that "it's just a bit farther than I could chuck a baseball," unless I was talking to Mike, and then I'd say "You could hit it with a football," 'cause Mike likes to think that he's got an arm on him.

When giving directions, I don't care that you need to turn 1.347 miles after you get on the road, it's "two stoplights away". And the next gas station isn't 17 miles down the highway, it's "22 minutes from here", or "At the next Sonic Drive-In". And my sister doesn't live 610.7 miles from here, she lives (depending on context!) "9 hours West" or "The next state over".

It goes the other way, too. When I get a latte at the coffee shop, I ask them to add "just a drop of Hazelnut, I don't want it sweet at all". When I'm doing woodwork I complain that "I'm not done sanding, I can still catch it with my fingernail". And that's just a couple of the measurements that I've used since yesterday!

measurements used in this answer

distance, smallest to largest

  • catch it with my fingernail — two thou, or in SI .05mm
  • inch — 2.54 CM
  • seat — 28 inches
  • yards — .9 meteres
  • far enough away that we couldn't have a conversation — 6 feet
  • spittin' distance — 8-12 feet
  • house — 47 feet
  • hit it with a football — 50 meteres, reasonably
  • football field — 100 yards
  • I could chuck a baseball — 426 feet
  • block — 660 yards
  • minute — roughly 1.5 km on the highway, or .5 km in town. Closer to 0 km during rush hour.
  • mile — 1000 paces
  • stoplight — YMMV
  • Sonic Drive-In — Common drive-in that shows up in every town with more than 1500 residents.
  • day — 12 miles walking, 20 km
  • hour — 60 miles
  • state — YMMV

other

  • handful — Few enough to manage all of them.
  • an arm — in the 99th percentile for strength
  • since yesterday — 24 hours
  • drop — seriously, just kinda wave the syrup bottle near the cup, it'll be plenty!

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