The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t fold and mutilate!

Q: I’m a big fan of WNYC and I listen all day, but everyone who talks on the air seems to misuse the word “fold.” I go nuts every time I hear one of the talk-show hosts or news readers do it. Next time you’re on the air, could you bring this up?

A: I’m so glad you mentioned this problem. In my writing book Words Fail Me, I did an entire chapter about the ways in which people mutilate numbers . I cringe when I hear or read that something has increased “X-fold.”

In the book, I used this example: “Babe’s flock of ten sheep increased threefold last year.” Then I went on to explain why the flock did NOT increase to thirty!

Using “fold” is a very fuzzy way of indicating that something has multiplied. It may be read any number of ways.

It could be that each “fold” represents a doubling (to a total of 80 sheep). Or “threefold” could mean an increase of three times the original number, in which case you’d end up with 40 sheep—the original 10 plus three times that number.

Any way you look at it, “fold” is a bad way to approach the problem. Even if you get it right, you’ll probably be misunderstood.

The solution? Don’t use “fold” to say something has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. Just say that it has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled: “Babe’s flock of ten sheep tripled last year.”

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