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Is it gigabytes or gigabits?

Units of Measurement

We have a hard enough time with abbreviations in everyday copywriting, but when the subject is technical or scientific, out come the style manuals. Abbreviations based on proper names along with their prefixes complicate matters. Do we follow the rules to the letter, like omitting periods, or use editorial discretion and just keep everything consistent? Like our English teachers taught us, there are always exceptions to the rules. Let’s start at the beginning.

Units named after long-dead scientists are abbreviated with an initial uppercase letter. Hence, A is for amps (from Ampere), V for volts (from Volta), and Hz for hertz (from Hertz). An exception to that rule is Ω for ohms to avoid confusion with the letter O or numeral 0. Along those lines, L is for liters, so not to confuse with numeral 1.

Prefixes are uppercase for factors greater than one, like M for mega (one million) and G for giga (one billion), and lowercase for factors less than one, like m for milli (one thousandth) and µ for micro (one millionth). An exception is k for kilo (one thousand) because K is used for the Kelvin temperature scale.

Then there are abbreviations that have standardized through common usage, like B for bytes and b for bits. So GB is for gigabytes, a measurement of data storage, and Gb is for gigabits, which is used in the expression Gb/s for gigabits per second, a measurement of data speed.

Now that you are thoroughly informed on technical abbreviations, we can make a game of spotting incorrect usage in print and web ads. Whoever finds the mistake in the largest point size wins!

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