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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?”

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Denotation vs. Connotation

Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation. Definitions de·no·ta·tion noun \dÄ“-nō-ˈtā-shÉ™n\ The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings. con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nÉ™-ˈtā-shÉ™n\ The set of associations implied by a word in addition to […]

Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation.


de·no·ta·tion noun \dē-nō-ˈtā-shən\

The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings.

con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nə-ˈtā-shən\

The set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning.

The Problem

When attempting to articulate an idea, carry on a conversation, or express a nuanced thought, I often find others mistaking the meanings of the words that I use. Sometimes the listener becomes upset, indignant or angry for what they believe they have just heard me say. In response, I often become frustrated because the words I used to express myself were carefully chosen based on their definitions or denotations, yet the listener has heard me say something else (sometimes something completely antithetical to my intent) because of unknown associations or connotations they have attached to those words.


Let’s say I’m speaking with nice fellow who loves his connotations and I use the words ‘completely ignorant’ to describe myself in regards to something like… carburetor intake valves. This might elicit a sour face from the listener and a comment like, “You’re not dumb! Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I then have to spend the next ten minutes, trying to use only words with no more than five letters in them, explaining how, though I may not be an idiot, indeed, I am completely ignorant about carburetors and wouldn’t know one if I saw one. Unfortunately, the listener has made two errors.

  1. He thought that I was beating myself up because he misunderstood my use of the word ‘ignorant,’ meaning ‘unknowledgeable or uneducated.’
  2. He then responded by misusing the word ‘dumb,’ meaning ‘lacking the ability to speak’ when what he really meant was something like ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish.’

Use Your Words

This form of miscommunication is very common. It happens with all sorts of words, for all sorts of reasons. I have witnessed breakdowns of this nature so many times, that I am beginning to believe it is one of our fundamental human struggles. Misuse and misunderstanding of the denotation of words is often the primary cause of our frustrations with others and ourselves. At the heart of understanding each other is the necessity for all of us to use proper words that mean what we intend to express ourselves and similarly for all of us to understand the words that others use to express themselves. In short, we should say what we mean, mean what we say, and hope for others to do the same. Though we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.

When you get a chance, pick up a dictionary and peruse through the thousands of words it contains. You might be thinking, “Who does that?” Right. Well, I do and have done so ever since I can I remember. I also obsessively read the encyclopedia (an addiction now fed by Wikipedia) and can recite all sorts of facts that probably aren’t useful on a practical level. So, I may sound like a geek (I’ll own that), but we have a rich linguistic history full of words developed by our ancestors that they have passed on to us. We now have the chance to use these powerful tools to communicate with each other and future generations.

Isn’t that exciting?! Go ahead and roll your eyes, then let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments. Do you have a good anecdote involving miscommunication and word meanings? Please share so we all can enjoy an lol together. Remember: No grunting! Use your words.

“Communication Breakdown”

How about Led Zeppelin performing “Communication Breakdown” live in 1970 for your viewing and listening pleasure?