The Grammarphobia Blog

Numbo jumbo

Q: In the old days, one would use a fraction to characterize the proportional relationship of a smaller object to a larger one – e.g., “My boat is one-tenth the size of that cruise ship.” Today, newspaper and TV people say, “My boat is 10 times smaller than that cruise ship.” Is this wrong, or am I just being small minded?

A: You’re right. Something can’t be “10 times smaller” than something else. It can, however, be one-tenth the size of the original.

In my book on writing, Words Fail Me, I have a chapter (“Down for the Count: When the Numbers Don’t Add Up”) about the casual misuse of numbers.

One of the things I complain about is the use of the phrases “x times more (or larger)” and “x times less (or smaller),” since they’re practically always misleading. I recommend using “x times as many” or “x times as much as.”

For example, say that Bob has 9 books and John has 3. The sentence “Bob has 3 times more books than John” is incorrect, but that’s what many people would say.

In fact, Bob has “3 times as many as” John, since he has John’s amount (3) times 3, for a total of 9.

If Bob had “3 times more” than John, he’d have John’s amount (3) plus 3 times that amount (9), for a total of 12. In other words, “3 times more” is actually 4 times as many.

All this stuff drives newspaper copy editors to distraction, and is something that many reporters refuse to understand. Hence all the items in newspaper corrections columns that deal with numbers!

I once read a statistic to the effect that the production of something had “fallen 600 percent.” Impossible! If something falls to zero, it has fallen only 100 percent.

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