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How are metric units converted?

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Quick Answer

Because the metric system is a base 10 system, converting between units and subunits is accomplished by either dividing or multiplying by multiples of 10. To convert from a smaller to a larger metric unit, division by a multiple of 10 is used. To convert a larger metric unit to a smaller one, multiplication by 10, 100 or 1,000 is used.

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Full Answer

Three common metric units in everyday use in almost every country in the world are the meter for measuring length, the gram for measuring weight and the liter for measuring capacity. Common fractions of these measurements are prefixed by "deci" for 0.1 (one-tenth), "centi" for 0.01 (one-hundredth) and "milli" for 0.001 (one-thousandth). For example, one hundredth of the length of a meter is a centimeter, and to convert 5 meters (the larger unit) to centimeters (the smaller unit), the multiplication is by 100. The result is that 5 meters equals 500 centimeters.

Common multiples of meters, grams and liters are prefixed by "deka" for a multiple of 10, "hecto" for a multiple of 100 and "kilo" for a multiple of 1,000. For example, a kilogram is 1,000 times the weight of a gram. To convert 6,000 grams (the smaller unit) to kilograms (the larger unit), the division is by 1,000. The result is that 6,000 grams equals 6 kilograms. The prefix "mega" indicates a multiple of 1 million and the prefix "giga" represents a multiple of 1 billion.

Metric units are the standard form of measurement worldwide except for the countries of Liberia, Myanmar and the United States. The basic metric unit of length, the meter, was initially defined to be equal to one ten-millionth of the distance between the Equator and the North Pole on a line resting at sea level and passing through Paris, France.

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