Metric System Prefixes & Abbreviations

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  • 0:03 The Metric System
  • 1:31 Prefixes and Abbreviations
  • 3:25 Length
  • 4:16 Volume
  • 4:47 Mass
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Learning about the metric system may seem overwhelming. This lesson provides hints to help you master the metric system's prefixes and abbreviations quickly. Mass, volume, and length units are used to demonstrate the prefixes and abbreviations.

The Metric System

You're having the same nightmare over and over again. You wake up in a cold sweat. 'Oh good. It was just a dream!' you think. But then the words start popping up again and again....

Centimeters, meters, decimeters, liters, milliliters. What do they mean? Why are they haunting your dreams? Don't panic. This lesson will help you sleep better. Let's start with some basics, and then we will get to the root of your nightmares.

Believe it or not, your dreams sound like they are about the metric system. Most of the world uses the metric system, as does the science community, so learning what it all means will not only give you sweet dreams, but will also help you navigate the science-world a little better.

The metric system is a system for measuring with base units for each type of measurement; conversions can easily be made between units by moving the decimal point right or left. Wait, what does that all mean? Well, a unit is just the type of measurement you are using. For example you are probably familiar with the following units: inches, feet, pounds and miles. The metric system uses other units of measurement like: meters, liters, and grams.

There are lots of prefixes, or the starting words or letters for different units, and lots of abbreviations, or a short way to write the unit. For the sake of you sleeping well tonight, let's get going!

Prefixes and Abbreviations

By learning the prefixes, you'll be able to apply them to different measurements. This lesson will focus on length, volume, and mass. Let's start by looking at table 1 to see some common prefixes, their abbreviations, and how much they represent, or the factor. The base corresponds to the thing you are measuring. For example, the base for length is the meter. The base for volume is the liter, and the base for mass is the gram. You wouldn't use a meter to represent mass, just like you wouldn't use an inch to represent your weight. Wouldn't that be silly? 'I weigh 150 inches'. Nope.

This table shows the prefixes, abbreviations, and how much of the base the prefix represents. For example, a kilo is 1,000 of the base. Or a milli is 0.001 of the base. In the middle you see that the base unit is equal to one. So that could be one meter, one liter, or one gram.

Table 1

Prefix Abbreviation Factor
kilo k 1,000
hecto h 100
deca da 10
Base Base 1
deci d 0.1
centi c 0.01
milli m 0.001

Now, in order to remember this, you can come up with a mnemonic. A mnemonic is when you take the first letter of every word and make a sentence that serves as a reminder. Let me give you an example: Kings Hate Dandelions Because Dandelions Can't March. So K in Kings represents kilo, H in Hate represents hecto and so on. Okay. I know. It sounds super silly. Why don't you take a moment to make your own, you'll remember it better that way.

Once you have a way to remember the order, next you need to remember the factor. If you start with kilo, you have 1,000. From there, in order to make conversions move the decimal point one place to the left for every prefix you use going down the table. Or, starting with the base, you can move the decimal left one place each time you go down the table or right one place each time you go up the table.


Now let's use our newfound knowledge to practice, starting with length, or the distance between two points. The base here is meter, so that means our root word will be meter. Take a look at table 2. Do you see how the prefixes are just inserted before the root? And the abbreviation just puts 'm' for meter after the first letter from the prefix? The prefixes are in the same order, so your mnemonic will work for all of the units of measurement.

Table 2: Length

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