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Less is not more

Today I sit in judgment.

A petition has arrived from a reader who says that “we've been engaged, here in the office, in a discussion regarding the phrase ‘five times less than’ which appeared in a memo from our CEO the other day.

“It seems like the math of the sentence doesn't work. You can have ‘five times more’ or ‘one-fifth of’ but ‘five times less than’ doesn't compute. Multiplication has to result in more, not less, I say. Division results in less.

“We have agreed that if I can get you to do a post on the subject, we will abide by your decision. We will also forward the link to the post to our corporate communications department (which writes these memos for our CEO.)”

I find for the petitioner. “One time” amounts to the total, and once “one time less” has occurred, the total is zero. If, in fact, five times less, is meant to indicate that the total has dropped to a fifth of the previous total, then one-fifth is preferable.

Balance and impartiality demand, however, that I give notice of a dissenting opinion by the estimable Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe, who writes, citing the authority of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, that times less has ample precedent in the language and is unlikely to be misunderstood. Idiom, in this opinion, trumps logic.

My learned colleague Bill Walsh at The Washington Post, however, has issued two opinions on the subject, here and here, which I take as a concurrence.

Petitioner will note that this is an opinion rendered — a preference rather than statutory law.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

Thank you. For what it is worth, litle by little I am getting your opinion accepted as grammatical law here in our corner of the world.

The bow tie helps. It gives you an air of authority. The sentence with all the punctuation marks reinforces your expertise.

Progress is made in small steps.

Just to comment on the petitioner's appeal to mathematics (which is often irrelevant to a case regarding language):

Multiplication does not have to result in a greater number. Multiplying by any number less than 1 results in less. Some may argue that multiplying by a fraction is division. That doesn't mean it isn't also multiplication.

There are also those who will argue that subtraction is the addition of a negative number. While they may have a point, it is best not to hold extended eye contact these people. They're unpredictable.

I have to side with Jan Freeman on this one. I think this is an attempt to apply mathematical logic to language, and I don't think it works, especially because you can indeed multiply two numbers together and get a smaller result. For instance, 10 × (1/5) = 2. Multiplication and division are inverses of each other, and I think "times less" captures that inverse relationship quite nicely.

And it's also worth pointing out that "one times less" apparently only occurs in discussions like this one, not in actual usage, where it would be pretty meaningless (not because it results in zero, but because it results in the original number).

But I do appreciate that you present this as your opinion, not as editorial fiat.

FLY IN THE OINTMENT

NEWSWIRE--Airbus has unveiled the largest passenger aircraft ever made. It is capable of seating 800, nearly twice as many as current jumbo jets.

When I work with mathematics, I get butterflies inside
Over factoring percentages and sums to subdivide.
I know multiplying decimals, a smaller number brings,
And dividing by a fraction can result in bigger things.

But with twice as many people on a jumbo jet vacation,
Does it double, halve or square my share of airport aggravation?

www.newsandverse.com
Light verse, ripped from the headlines

I believe that I understand the reasoning behind the CEO's phrasing:

I was married to a scientist who used to declare something or someone in some way unacceptable "by a factor of about" [pick a number]. It took me a very long time to realize that he was using math to, frankly, bully people. That factor nonsense would stun people into thinking that they would have to defend opinions or behavior in the mathematical realm which most people believe they can't understand.

It's an attempt to befuddle.

'Five times less' is not clear to me at all. In fact, I find it confusing. It would be so much simpler and clearer to just say 'one-fifth.

Eve - I am, quite possibly, a dying breed. I think our CEO is honest, hardworking and earns every cent he is paid. It was not an attempt to befuddle.

It is a construction that I often see in newspapers as well as in the CEO's memo. Mr. McIntyre's response, and the comments that have followed, demonstrate that this is preference, not grammar.

I prefer Mr. McIntyre's preference.

(I don't, by the way, see how one can "side with Jan Freeman" whose preference is based on the assumption that "one times less" is unlikely to be misunderstood, and then totally misunderstand that "one times less" results in zero.)

I'm not seeing where Jan Freeman says anything about "one times less." Perhaps you can point it out for me, Petitioner.

One thing at a time. I find in a lot of raw copy (and in too much edited copy) the construction n times more than when the writer means n times as much as. Ten times more than a dime is $1.10; if you mean $1, that's ten times as much as a dime.

This happens a lot in what I edit. The smaller the number, the worse the offense: "2 times less" is even more egregious than "5 times less"; I even see "2-fold less" on occasion. They can't just say "half as much"?

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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