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How big is life?

A loyal reader of this blog (and who would have imagined that such people existed, or would admit to it?) saw in an article about a chess match a reference to “life-size” chess pieces: “I believe the reporter intended to convey that the pieces are as large as humans, but I’m not sure. I’ve seen ‘life-size’ used to describe other inanimate objects, and it always strikes me as odd.”

The term life-size can refer to inanimate objects as well as living beings, even if that does seem a little odd. But in the context here, it’s wrong.

Life-size describes a representation of a being or an object that is the same size as what it represents. A life-size sculpture of Abraham Lincoln would be six and a half feet tall. A life-size sculpture of Alexander Pope would be four and a half feet tall.

A life-size chess piece would typically be about two or three inches tall. The writer was referring to oversize chess pieces or human-size chess pieces.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 AM | | Comments (8)


It seems weird, though to have a life-size sculpture of a car.

Or a life-size replica of a rock.

At least a life-size sculpture of Prez. Abe is a sculpture of something that HAD a life.

I'd vote for "full-size" replica of a rock, or status of a car.

And of course, a full-size replica of a cheese piece would be about 2 to 3 inches tall.

As a kind of irrelevant aside, what's the rule of thumb for deciding between "life-size" and "life-sized"? They both seem sorta right.

Would that be Lincoln-sized chess pieces or Pope-sized chess pieces?

And while we're examining odd wording, from Friday's Sun web headlines: Propane explosion causes fire at Queen Anne's home. I never knew HM the Queen had a house in Maryland.

I think the confusion arises because in the word "life-size," the life being referred to is not the life of the object, but our (the writer's and the readers') shared life. That is to say, a life-size sculpture of a car is the same size a car is "in life" (in our experience of life), as opposed to "in a picture," for example. Does this help?

Is that intended to be a life-size piece, or a life-size version of what the piece depicts (for example, a queen might be a 5'6" woman)?

and if the queen piece is a life-size woman, how big is the rook piece?

When I worked for the San Jose Mercury News, I got a photo proof of a plastic dragon that kids climb on at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. The photo did not show any children or anything else to indicate scale, so the photographer helpfully wrote "Dragon (slightly smaller than life size)."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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