Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing


"One time less," to the extent that it makes any frickin' sense at all, would obviously mean zero. So, how could "35 times less" suddenly make perfect sense and mean more than one time less? And how could "one time more" possibly be the exact same thing as "two times more"? I don't often disagree with the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman, who was kind enough to cite me elsewhere in the same column, but I have to take issue with her take on such innumerate usages.

15 comments:

Dave Strauss said...

I'm twice as confused as I was before I read your post.

Christy Goldfinch said...

And I have 35 times less respect for Freeman than I did yesterday. But I'm sure that tomorrow I'll have five times more than I have now, or to put it a different but apparently equivalent way, five times as much. So if I started with 100 Respect Units yesterday, how many will I have tomorrow?

Grant said...

I was just thinking about something similar on the way to work this morning. Shouldn't it be "one time fewer" instead of "one time less?"

I blame the Hal David and the 5th Dimension for this because they wrote and popularized, respectively, "One Less Bell to Answer."

I guess "One Fewer Bells to Answer" just didn't have quite the same ring.

(I'll be here all week; try the veal.)

Natalie said...

I'm not sure why people use these phrases at all when it is usually very easy to write around them. It usually doesn't even make the writing more cumbersome. The purpose of such phrases is to help readers translate arbitrary figures into something they can visualize, and "35 times less" just doesn't do that.

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

I've long been annoyed by constructions like "increased in value by 400%". Using percentages in such instances is needlessly confusing. If you mean that the new value is five times the old value, then say so in a manner that doesn't invoke the number 400.

Dave Strauss said...

I once worked on a project where the contract specified that our product would be "50% faster" than a competing product. Of course the contract didn't specify how "50% faster" was to be measured, so both sides spent a year wrangling over the issue. They wanted to say that if the competing product took 100 seconds to run the test then our version of it should take 50 seconds. We, on the other hand, wanted to say that if the competing product took 100 seconds to run the test our version should take 67 seconds. We finally won out but mostly because the issue became moot when a new competing product came out that was three times as fast as the old one. No matter how we did the math we weren't even close.

Stephen said...

I'm with Freeman on this. 35 times less means one thirty-fifth, has done so for the last three hundred years at least, and nobody is going to genuinely misunderstand it.

As for the gentleman who suggested 'one time fewer', congratulations. Few could ever aspire to the purity of your pedantry. It is as remarkable as it is misplaced.

Grant said...

Ouch.

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

Full disclosure: I am a professional mathematician. When it comes to writing about quantities, there seem to be differences between what sounds natural to us and what sounds natural to the population at large.

I don't think there's much danger of misunderstanding "35 times less", but I would never, ever say it. I would say "one thirty-fifth of".

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

To follow up on my earlier comment, "35 times smaller than" doesn't sound so bad to me. But I perceive "35 times less than" as ugly and almost vaguely imprecise, because of the subtractive connotations of the word "less".

Danica said...

Hi, I'm a longtime reader, first-time poster. I guess the subject finally got my dander up enough to write. I am 100% with Bill on this one. "Five times less" doesn't make any sense, unless you are talking about events or occurences, and then you would have to say fewer: "I brushed my teeth five times fewer this week than I did last week." Those who suggest people are not likely to be confused haven't met me. I was born confused, and these amateur mathematics don't help.

Bill said...

Danica! You're not the noted mathematician Winnie Cooper, are you?

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

Would Danica McKellar really say "these mathematics"?

Kidding, kidding. I'm sorry, I don't mean to pick on anyone.

Stephen said...

"Five times less" doesn't make any sense, unless you are talking about events or occurences, and then you would have to say fewer:
Google hits for "times fewer" -- 40,800
Google hits for "times less" -- 1,350,000

That is to say thirty-three times less English-speakers agree with you than don't.

Vadim Iaralov said...

Since Google-counting has been brought up,

"Google and stupid journalism tricks ("Lies, Damned Lies, and Google")"
www.mediabistro.com/articles/cache/a1217.asp
with discussion at
www.sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/000545.html
___
There is also some research paper that showed Google's numbers used to be inaccurate. Turns out, the approximation implied by "about X hits" that people gloss over is important. Google doesn't actually count in the usual sense but sort-of guesses (can't be certain that it's an unbiased estimator - it wasn't at the time of research). Nor will it display results after some N << 1 million.