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Height, Width, Depth, Length

What is the proper way to use these common every day measurement terms?

Black and white photograph of the Cloud Gate in Millenium Park, Chicago, IllinoisThere doesn’t seem to be definitive consensus on the matter of the proper way to use the terms height (H), width (W), depth (D), and length (L) when describing the dimensions of things. Usually we are left to sort out which dimension each term is describing on a per object basis. This is stupid.

A Real World Problem

I need cases for my studio monitors. Touring is not very friendly to delicate reference speakers, so proper cases are kind of important. Since the manufacturer of these particular monitors does not make cases, I had to look to other manufacturers for appropriately sized cases. In the specifications for the monitors the manufacturer lists their product in H x W X D dimensions. That’s fine, but one case manufacturer lists their product in H x L x W. Another manufacturer lists their cases in H x L x D. That makes immediate identification of a properly sized case a bit difficult. The fact that some manufacturers list their products in imperial measures while others use the metric system complicates things too, but I’ll save that for another day.

Isn’t it funny that we don’t have standardized language for something as common as measuring the size of things? To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a science problem, but a linguistic problem. Science has created a variety of coordinate systems to make sure we send rockets in the right direction, but for every day use we don’t have a standard system of common words. I love the English language, but it is rife with deficiencies. Don’t get me started on the lack of a “grammatically correct” gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. Grammarians, if you’re reading this, stop complaining about the misuse of “they” and SOLVE THE PROBLEM.

Back to dimensions.

A Plan of Action

In most cases, an object’s dimensions can be described using Cartesian, cylindrical, or spherical coordinate systems with words we already know and love. If an object is roughly box–shaped, orient the object so you’re looking directly at it’s forward-facing orientation and describe it as if you’re looking at it from the “front.” This means you’ll have to determine which side is the front. Most things have one. If your object doesn’t, then it’s probably not useful and should be recycled. (Kidding.) For example, studio monitors are useful because their front side houses speakers which emit sound.

H x W x D

Using Height, Width, and Depth (in that order), make your measurements. Roughly 3 out of 4 objects in this world can be described this way.

  • Width = X-axis (left to right) derived from wide
  • Height* = Y-axis (bottom to top) derived from high
  • Depth = Z-axis (front to back) derived from deep

H x W x L

If an object is really long in one dimension but still boxy (e.g. lumber, french fries), use Length (L) instead of Depth. The word “length” comes from the word “long.”

  • Length = the long side of an object

D/R/C x L

If an object is long but round instead of boxy (e.g. guitar cable, baseball bat, spaghetti), use Diameter (D), Radius (R), or Circumference (C) (usually in that order of preference) and Length. If it’s something like a drinking glass or flag pole, use H x D/R/C.

  • Diameter = the width of the widest distance across a circle
  • Radius = distance from the center to the edge of a circle
  • Circumference = the length of the edge of a circle if it was stretched out into a straight line

The Ball Method

If an object doesn’t have any boxy sides and is mostly round like a ball, use the Ball Method. Describe your object by choosing a ball that’s roughly the same size. Hail and cancer are the most common things to be measured this way, but it’s used for all sorts of things. They are good because they are self-explanatory. Here are some of the most common sizes. Pick one.

  • The tip of a ballpoint pen
  • A pencil eraser
  • No bigger than the tip of your pinky finger
  • A golf ball
  • A baseball
  • A softball
  • A basketball
  • A watermelon
  • A medicine ball
  • One of those cages they do motorcycle stunts in
  • The shiny silver thing in Chicago that looks like the ship from Flight of the Navigator
  • That space ball ride at Epcot
  • The Moon
  • Your mom

Now for the sake of progress, can we all agree on this and get back to doing whatever it was we were doing before we had to sort this out? Good. Glad we worked through it.

* The Word Nazis tell us that the word ‘height’ doesn’t have a -th on the end of it, but it should, if we follow logical convention. Can we at least downgrade it from grammatical sin? From now on, if you say, “heighth,” I say, “How high?”

3 Comments >

3 Comments

  1. 1 Sharon 10:22 pm Mar 28, 2014

    Thank you for the information. I was taught by my dad the way you wrote it out (H-W-L) but have been seeing dimensions written improperly. Nice to have some confirmation! You were also very thorough. Enjoyed reading your article.

  2. 2 Marco 5:10 am Apr 2, 2015

    I agree on all that 🙂 I am curious to why you think ( H x W x D ) should be in that order.

    I naturally tend more towards using width first and then use either depth or height, depending on which surface is the dominant: for example, for a desk – where the top surface is the dominant one – I would use ( W x D x H ), for a TV – where the front surface is the dominant one – I would use ( W x H x D ).

  3. 3 Scott Troyer 9:50 am Apr 2, 2015

    Marco, good question! I wrote this article a long time ago (a long time in internet years) and, as such, I might have revisions to make.

    Ideally, we would follow the convention of mathematics, listing dimensions in the X-, Y-, and Z-planes respectively. That would mean all three dimensional objects would be described by width, then depth, then height. W x D x H

    You raise an important factor with the idea of “dominant surface.” Indeed, some objects (like a TV or speakers) have a front-facing dominant surface. I believe in those cases the product brochure should describe that surface using a relative 90° Z-rotated X x Y plane (i.e. 1920px x 1080px). But the specifications should also include overall product dimensions in a standardized W x D x H format.

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