Wednesday, December 28, 2011

'Times' That Try Men's Souls

If I start with $100 and end up with $250, did that money grow 2 1/2 times

A reporter and I are having a good-natured disagreement: He says yes, and I say no. 

The increase in question (I've simplified it for this example) was 150 percent. There's no arguing that; it's just math. To me, that translates to growing 1 1/2 times. The reporter points out that growing 1 1/2 times sounds far less impressive than doubling-and-getting-halfway-to-tripling. At first glance, it sounds like a mere 50 percent increase. I see his point, and besides that, nobody would ever say something "grew 1 1/2 times." I would say the amount grew 150 percent. The writer proposed "more than doubled," which sounds more striking even though it's less precise, and even though the amount much more than doubled, and that was fine with me. 

But he still thinks I'm wrong. Let's examine the point further. For starters, I'll add by to the sentence, so it can't be read as meaning that the amount grew on two or three occasions. Then let's raise the stakes. Because double is such a handy word, I think "grew two times" is almost as unlikely a phrase as "grew one time" or "grew 1 1/2 times." Triple and quadruple are viable words as well, if less common, and I'll skip quintuple just for good measure.

So let's say I started with $100 and ended up with $600. My money sextupled, but few would say that. Now then: Did it grow six times? It multiplied six times, and the result is six times the original amount, but it grew 500, not 600, percent. So which model does the grow by ___ times expression follow, the multiplication or the percentage change? 

Here's how I do the math: Even though nobody would say something "grew by one time," that would have to mean it doubled -- which, inconveniently enough, means growing by 100, not 200, percent. So if doubling is growing one time, tripling is growing two times, quadrupling is growing three times, quintupling is growing four times and sextupling is growing five times. You don't get to count the return on your original investment as an increase, though that issue gets confused a little in the casino, where a big "99 percent" return on a slot machine means you're losing a dollar of every hundred you put in (note the use of the correct word return there). 

My friendly adversary pointed me to a dictionary that defines the verb triple as meaning "to increase three times in size or amount." And there is the -fold model. A twofold increase is doubling, a threefold increase is tripling, and so on. To which I respond: None of the dictionaries on my shelves are that sloppy, and those shelves also hold an otherwise wonderful usage book in which the author is tripped up by -fold, insisting that tripling would be a twofold increase. (It's a special case, -fold, because "a onefold increase" is not only never used but also impossible. You can fold something in two or three or more, but you can't fold it in one.)

Whatever the answer, as I told the reporter, the fact that we're disagreeing should be a clue that such a reference would be unacceptably ambiguous. You have people like me, in the "Do the math" school, and you have people like him, in the "Aw, c'mon, everybody knows what that means" school. My bottom line, as with the dispute over "times more" vs. "times as much as," is that we're dealing with a confusing and ultimately bankrupt expression. When you're tempted to say "three times more," make it "three times as much as." When you're tempted to say "grew three times," say "multiplied three times" or "grew 200 percent" or "tripled."

Monday, December 12, 2011

LOL 101

The finale of Season 19 of the CBS reality series "The Amazing Race" included a challenge in which one member of each of the remaining pairs had to sit down at a manual typewriter and reproduce a passage. That passage included the numeral 1, or at least a number that looked as though it did. The typewriter's keyboard did not include a 1.

I wish Bill and Cathi, the token old people, had still been in the race. They would have known instantly that you simply use the lowercase l (or should I say the lowercase L?) with such a typewriter. But the teams still alive were all made up of relative youngsters, and every relative youngster participating in this challenge puzzled puzzled to some extent over how to make that 1. Some puzzled over how to get the darn paper in the darn machine.

I used manual typewriters in my junior-high-school typing class in the 1970s and even in college journalism classes into the '80s. I can't say for sure that I ever used one without a 1 key, but I sure have spent way too much time cleaning up after oldsters who typed letters into their numbers. In Courier and the other monospaced fonts you find on typewriters and many computer screens, l,00l looks just fine in place of 1,001, and so it's hard to spot (see below). In print, however, the result is often bizarre. WYSIWYG mode is a good thing. A sharp eye is an even better thing.

The El Generation has largely been displaced, and today the more insidious letter-for-number typo is the use of the letter o in place of the zero (usually it's the lowercase letter, but you see the capital now and then). Their proximity on the keyboard and the common use of "oh" in spoken references to zero don't help matters. There, too, the mistake is easy to miss on a computer screen. Speaking of CBS television shows, the O-vs.-0 issue came up in the title of the new version of "Hawaii Five-0." The network, citing utility for online searches, requested that news organizations write the show's name with a zero, even though it's pronounced as an "oh." Some sticklers bristled, but for me it's a coin toss. The number is pronounced like the letter, so either version seems fine.

By the way, here's a look at the offending characters in some common typefaces (click here for an image if  your browser isn't showing you the font changes):

1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl
1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl
1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl
1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl
1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl
1,001 reasons not to type l,00l or l,ool or l,OOl

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Simple, Desultory Philippic About Black Friday

We're stuck with "Black Friday," I suppose, but it's kind of a ridiculous monicker. It's said to refer to black (as opposed to red) ink, as in that allegedly being the day when retailers' balance sheets finally edge into positive territory for the year. I've long doubted that, and Kevin Drum and Ben Zimmer do a great job of telling the real story. What looks like a sardonic term is, in fact, a sardonic term.

I'm all for sardonic, but now stores are using the term with a straight face to celebrate their sales.

There is something to be said about embracing a derogatory term to take away its power. But this isn't an example of that. It's an example of stupidity. That same stupidity, the inability to distinguish between fact and commentary, between names and descriptions, has given us frontage roads named Frontage Road and base models of car lines named the Base.


A punk rocker who calls himself a punk rocker is a joke, a poser. Play punk rock and people will call you a punk rocker.

Label humor or satire "humor" or "satire" and you've killed the joke. Present humor or satire and people will laugh.

Build a frontage road and people will say, "Hey, look, there's a frontage road."

Offer a cheap car that isn't the XLT Landau Brougham Super Sport and people will talk about the base model.

And if you put crap on sale the day after Thanksgiving, people will know what you're doing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An LOL Moment

Meet Guga, our household's Cat No. 2.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Speaking Words of Wisdom?

Here's a new one on me: A reader who went to parochial school tells me a nun was "very adamant" about the idea that people's names used in apposition should not be set off with commas, because that would risk confusion with direct address.

In other words, you'd have to say "My mother Mary is at home," because "My mother, Mary, is at home" would be telling someone named Mary that your mother was at home.

Anyone else ever heard of this wacky "rule"?

It's absurd, of course, for a number of reasons. (Even if all your readers were named Mary, most would presumably realize you weren't writing directly to them.) But I suppose some people would roll their eyes at the logic most of us apply -- using commas if we have one mother and no commas if we have two or more.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Homework Assignment

I could care less about "I could care less," but I couldn't care less -- at least not a whole lot less -- about the passive voice.

If you're one of the haters, or a particularly enthusiastic cheerleader for the active voice, your assignment is to win me over to your side, without mentioning "Mistakes were made." Give me real-world examples of the passive voice just ruining everything, and keep your argument free of passivity.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I'm Off the Wagon

Sorry for the silence -- it's been a busy time. (Stay tuned for more on that front.)

Meanwhile (or "In the meantime ...," but, please, not "Meantime ..."), here's a little something I wrote for my actual employer, about life in the correctional system.

And don't forget to follow me on Twitter, where I do most of my writing in this short-attention-span age.