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Ten Times Lower:

A reader writes, apropos my Slate piece,

Canada cannot have crime rate ten times lower than the crime rate in the U.S. It can have crime rate of one tenth the crime rate of the U.S.

I've heard this objection before, but I'm just not sure I understand its foundation. Indeed, if "X times lower" meant "lower by X times the original amount," "ten times lower" would make little sense (except if for some reason you said that -9 was ten times lower than 1). Or if you somehow just defined "times lower" as an error, it would be, by definition, an error.

What I don't grasp is what justification, besides the objector's own view of what the language should be, there is for this. This is, to my knowledge, a common part of normal English usage. It's not confusing. It's not illogical unless one defines "lower" in a pretty strange way.

Even if one is a prescriptivist, who argues that a statement is bad English if it doesn't conform with The Authorities, what Authorities actually condemn this? There might be some, and please let me know if there are, but I just don't know of any, and my quick and dirty search didn't come up with any.

Naturally, if you think that this usage is ugly or annoying, I can't really argue with that. And if enough people think that, one might want to avoid the usage simply to avoid annoying one's readers. But I took the "cannot" to mean "cannot, without violating the rules" rather than "cannot, without annoying me." Where are those rules set down?

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "Times Less Than":
  2. Ten Times Lower:
guest:
10 times larger = multiply by 10
10 times lower = divide by 10 = one-tenth

If someone has a problem with such language, it's likely that this person has far more serious problems than the language.
6.20.2006 3:55pm
Russ (mail):
The usage is simply mathematically incorrect. I first heard this usage when I met my (formerly Russian) wife and it just sounded wrong. I was 40 at the time and I'm fairly well read and I've just never seen it before. Guess that makes me weird or something.
6.20.2006 4:03pm
A. Random Physicist:
I think "10 times lower" is okay in this instance specifically because you are discussing a rate, and it's common usage to speak of rates as being lower or higher. Quantities other than rates tend to be described as larger or smaller, however (generally speaking, in my experience) so saying, for example, that person A's weight was two times lower than person B's would sound a bit weird to me. (I would say two times smaller in this case.)
6.20.2006 4:07pm
Mahlon:
The words "times" refers to multiplication. Ten times a number is exactly that. Your usage is simply wrong. Your meaning therefore is vague and the sentence plainly ridiculous. It cannot be. Such usage indicates an inability to think clearly. You are wrong.
6.20.2006 4:17pm
Hedberg:
As the first comment demonstrates, these usages (x times larger, x times lower)can be confusing. For ten times larger, multiply by 11; for ten times lower, divide by which: ten or eleven? Although I'm neither a genius nor an expert on English usage, I do have an advanced engineering degree and some facility and familiarity with both math and English. Despite that, I find the usage "X times lower" to be confusing; I'm never quite sure what is intended. If what is meant is "one tenth as much," I ask myself, when I encounter it, why did not the writer write that?
6.20.2006 4:20pm
jimbino (mail):
Imprecise language aids imprecise thinking. "Ten times higher" might mean eleven times as much, might mean ten times as much. It is better not to use such a construction.

Likewise, a logician will avoid the ambiguous "All men are not wimps," since it can mean either "No man is a wimp" or "Not all men are wimps."

Americans are verbally confused and something needs to be done about it. Nowadays you will almost never hear anyone on TV or radio answer a question with a simple "yes." It's always "absolutely." And the real brain-fart is the ubiquitous solecism "the problem is, is that ...."
6.20.2006 4:24pm
Eric Wilner (mail) (www):
Well... if Y is 1/10 of X, then it's "90% lower than X." Saying it's "10 times lower than X" sounds to me mathematically equivalent to "1000% lower than X," which is clearly not what was intended.
But, then, I have trouble figuring out what people really mean when they use expressions like "twice as light," or, in ARP's example, "two times lower (or smaller)." I'd just say Person A's weight was half that of Person B... assuming of course that this is the meaning intended.
6.20.2006 4:26pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
"X is ten times lower than Y" just means Y is 10 times X. This isn't confusing, it is used in conversation regularly. The very fact that there is no other plausible interpratation makes the usage completely clear.
6.20.2006 4:31pm
Dean Kimball (mail):
I agree with the Russ and the original criticism. "10-times lower" is simply inaccurate. Yes, we could all agree to a meaningful definition of this phrase and move on. However, I believe language matters. If we make the small effort required to remove any ambiguity (say "one-tenth" instead of "10-times lower"), we are being accurate wihtout sacrificing clarity and consistency of language.
6.20.2006 4:33pm
SeanF:
The difference between two times bigger and three times bigger is the same as the difference between three times bigger and four times bigger - one time, or whatever the original number was.

But the difference between two times smaller and three times smaller (as they've been defined here) is not the same as the difference between three times smaller and four times smaller, and neither one of them is equal to "one time," the original number.

That is why I think this usage is problematic.

You're right that it's only wrong if it's defined as wrong, but that's true of any language rule, isn't it?
6.20.2006 4:34pm
Misanthronomicon:
If everyone knows what "X is ten times higher than Y" means, why is it so hard to figure out that "Y is ten times lower than X" means exactly the same thing?
6.20.2006 4:36pm
Houston Lawyer:
You might just as well say that crime in the United States is a fraction of that in Canada. This statement is always correct if you supply the right fraction. Ten times lower would be correct if describing a depth.
6.20.2006 4:37pm
drewsil (mail):
My opinion,

X is 10 times higher than Y -> X = 10*Y
X is 10 times lower than Y -> 10*X = Y

The main construction is
X is 10 times Y
which clearly indicates that X=10*Y. Higher than is a null modifier which does not change the sentence, though possibly clarifies it. Lower than inverts the sentence. I don't find the sentence at all ambiguous, though it seems that many people here do. My best guess is that most of those who find it ambiguous don't speak about ratios too often.

This essentially answers Eugene's question. The meaning is unclear to enough people that its probably best to avoid this locution, even if it is not objectionable in an objective sense.
6.20.2006 4:37pm
ForestGirl:
Not sure whether you would consider this an Authority, but it explains what I don't understand about that formulation:

"times less, times more: Writers who speak of three times more or three times faster often mean 'multiplied by 3,' but precise readers are likely to understand the meaning as 'multiplied by 4': the original quantity or speed, plus three more times. For clarity, avoid times more, times faster, times bigger, etc. Write four times as much (or as fast, etc.) And do not write times less or times smaller (or things like times as thin or times as short). A quantity can decrease only one time before disappearing, and then there is nothing left to decrease further. Make it one-third as much (or as tall, or as fast.)"

--The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
6.20.2006 4:39pm
guest:
I'm confused as to how the wording is in any way ambiguous. Is it reasonable to infer that the crime rate is negative? "Twice as light" means that one object is two times heavier than the other object.

Indeed, I'd argue that this is even the preferred usage, because the 10 stays the same and is therefore easier on the brain. Say object X is 50% larger than Y - the 50% is not interchangeable (object Y is 2/3 as large as X).

Seems to me that this is just further evidence that, on the internet, there will always be someone to criticize something, no matter how silly that criticism is.
6.20.2006 4:40pm
PAC:
It's not really plausible to claim, as some commenters have, that the phrase "X is ten times lower than Y" is unclear and leads to confusion. Everyone understands the person who uses that formulation to mean that "Y divided by ten is X."

The problem for those of us who tend to nitpick is simply that, while such a misusage is perfectly decipherable (as a result of it being so common), it is still a misusage because "times" doesn't mean "divided by" any more than "plus" means "subtracted by." If there's a rule at play, it is that words mean what the dictionary defines them to mean. tp://www.bartleby.com/61/4/T0220400.html
6.20.2006 4:45pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Good grief, Mahlon et al...

If I were to tell you that the fire alarm is going off, would you burn to a crisp as you posted a comment about how my thinking isn't clear, as the alarm is really "going on?"

Vague speech or writing is bad. Commonly used idiomatic speech that isn't literally true is not a problem.
6.20.2006 4:47pm
Matt22191 (mail):
I don't know of any Authorities that condemn this usage, and it's not unclear to me. I'm accustomed enough to seeing it that I don't give it much thought. That said, I find it mildly annoying and I try to avoid it. Although I understand what it means, it sounds sloppy and imprecise to me. What's more, "one tenth" (or "ten percent") usually permits a shorter sentence, e.g., "Canada's crime rate is one tenth that of the United States," versus, "Canada's crime rate is ten times lower than that of the United States."

I don't think the usage is "mathematically incorrect." Language isn't math. There's a reason that mathematicians use specialized symbols to describe mathematical concepts and relationships; they're far more compact and precise than everyday language. As others have pointed out, there's often a lot of ambiguity in our attempts to describe mathematical relationships using everyday language, instead of the symbols that mathematicians have developed for that purpose. But I don't think that's true in this case. I think the typical writer/speaker who uses "ten times lower" means "one tenth," and I think the typical reader/listener understands it to mean that. As long as that's true, I see nothing "mathematically incorrect" about it.
6.20.2006 4:47pm
Mahlon:
Alright, let's first assume, just for discussion purposes, that the crime rate in the U.S. is 12 crimes per thousand people. What would the rate per thousand be in Canada? 12 times 10 is 120. 12 (the U.S. rate) minus 120 (the amount by which you reduce the U.S. rate to get the Canadian rate) equals -108 crimes per thousand. This yields 108 non-events in Canada for every 12 events in the U.S. Explain how this makes any sense whatsoever.
6.20.2006 4:53pm
Jim C. (mail):
To me, Professor Volokh's usage is idiomatic and logical. A. Random Physicist makes a good point: it sounds more natural to talk this way about rates than quantities. And Russ's allusion to his Russian wife is also relevant: "ten times less" and similar expressions, though not quite natural in English, are absolutely standard in Russian — which is possibly why the Professor is curious as to why anyone would object.
6.20.2006 4:54pm
JGR (mail):
I believe I can summarize the main points.

1) "ten times greater" and "ten times lower" are generally used in the sense that Volokh used them, or at least that is how I have always heard them used. I wouldn't say - as some commenters have - that Volokh is misusing them because you can't misuse a colloquial phrase by definition - it means what it means.

2) Like many colloquial phrases, it means something different when translated technically. The problem appears to be that many people haven't actually heard it used that way, and if they attempt to discover its meaning by pure thought it may mean something different.

3) Since many people apparantly have never heard this phrase, it may be best to avoid it as some commenters suggest.

4) Bear in mind that this is true of all colloquial phrases and this is really all we're talking about. I was a math major in college but I have never before now thought it odd to use "ten times greater" or "ten times lower". You don't think about the inherant logic of colloquial phrases until you run into someone who isn't familiar with it.

5)Mahlon said "Such usage indicates an inability to think clearly." I sometimes disagree with Mr. Volokh, but having read him for several years, I can safely say that if your premise leads you to the conclusion that he can't think clearly, you should check your premise.
6.20.2006 4:54pm
Hedberg:
The comments in this thread indicate quite well the confusion that can result from these imprecise usages and justify the rule quoted by ForestGirl:

"One times larger" = "100% larger" = "Two times as much."
"Two times larger" = "200% larger" = "Three times as much."
...
"Ten times larger" = "1000% larger" = "Eleven times as much."

If a reader has to guess what a writer means by "ten times larger," how can a reader possibly interpret "ten times smaller" with any confidence?
6.20.2006 4:54pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
I don't know why people complain about the usage colloquial phrases that don't make sense when analyzed technically. I could care less.
6.20.2006 5:03pm
Matt22191 (mail):
"If a reader has to guess what a writer means by 'ten times larger,' how can a reader possibly interpret 'ten times smaller' with any confidence?"

I think JGR has answered that question quite nicely: The only readers who have to guess what a writer means by 'ten times larger' are readers who aren't familiar with colloquial English, and readers who insist on parsing colloquial English using pure logic. I'm willing to consider the possibility that writers should try to accommodate the former group. I have no time for the latter group. Language is a grown order. Get over it.
6.20.2006 5:08pm
PersonFromPorlock:
English is a messy and inexact language, well suited to us messy and inexact human beings.
6.20.2006 5:10pm
Shangui (mail):
This yields 108 non-events in Canada for every 12 events in the U.S. Explain how this makes any sense whatsoever.

Exactly. Which is why no one would ever read the phrase the way you are. Did any of you really think that the original source could have possibly meant this? Of course not.
6.20.2006 5:11pm
JGR (mail):
I wrote above "you can't misuse a colloquial phrase by definition - it means what it means." Before some other smart-ass points it out, let me note you can obviously misuse a colloquial phrase to mean something different than its meaning. You can't use "ten times lower" to mean "It's a nice day outside".
6.20.2006 5:15pm
Noah Snyder (mail):
Eugene, I'm with you on this one. And as a mathematician people claiming that these means something different "technically" just doesn't ring true. I would definitely say to another mathematician that something was "twice as small" as something else, and that mathematician would understand it the way everyone else understands it.
6.20.2006 5:18pm
byomtov (mail):
I'm among those who dislike this usage and find it unclear. Colloquialism is fine, but it should clarify, not confuse. It's easy to write "x is one tenth of y," or "x is 10% of y." There is no need for "ten times lower."
6.20.2006 5:19pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Matt,

As I've noted elsewhere, attitudes like that displayed in your comment,
"I'm willing to consider the possibility that writers should try to accommodate the former group. I have no time for the latter group. Language is a grown order. Get over it"
are fine if you're

- childish
- impatient
- indebted to no-one.

However, writers who write to persuade can't afford to

- piss off intelligent readers
- mislead
- fail to make their case.

Professors, and to an even greater extent lawyers, really ought to have a clue when they write. If a locution draws attention away from the point, and towards the (stupid, meaningless, obscure and misleading) words themselves, then why use it?

Oh yes. "You have no time" for people who will fail to read your point as a result. They should "get over it."

Noted, but not persuasive.

Oh - and why didn't you write "I could care less" about such people? It'd be just as annoying and literally wrong.
6.20.2006 5:19pm
ForestGirl:
Matt22191:

Let's say the sentences read "In Canada, 10 people are murdered each year. There are ten times more murders in the US than there are in Canada."

How many murders are there then in the US? 100 or 110? I have no idea. Ten times more is 100 more, therefore I would think 110. But most everyone here seems to think that 100 would be what the author intended.
6.20.2006 5:22pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Forest Girl,

The answer is 100. Not because you can parse it logically and arrive at that unequivocal answer, but because that's what the usage means in colloquial English. Perhaps you weren't previously familiar with the usage. That's OK. Now you are.
6.20.2006 5:27pm
Mahlon:
Shangui - What is the answer, then? Show it to me. What is the number? It is a number, not a general approximation which is dependent on interpretation. No one has posted an answer, they merely argue that imprecise language is acceptable. If we were doctors, I don't think we would say that the nurse should give Joe tens times less of a medicine than was given to Sue would cut it. The fact that we are haggling only means that the author failed to communicate clearly.
6.20.2006 5:29pm
JGR (mail):
Eh Nonymous,

I don't know if you have a beef with Matt from another thread I'm not familiar with, but I thought his comment was common-sensical and not remotely childish. When I was in seventh grade our advanced class learned geometry. After that, whenever a teacher would make reference to a line that they drew on a chalk board, some student would say "Mr. Smith, that's not actually a line. It doesn't go on forever and it has width". Har-har. What is forgivable immaturity in a seventh grader is simply annoying in an adult, and that's all I took Matt to be saying.
6.20.2006 5:30pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Mahlon,

What do you mean by "would cut it?" I argue that this is unclear. The fact that I make this argument means that you didn't communicate clearly.
6.20.2006 5:41pm
ForestGirl:
Matt22191,

Sorry, not buying it. "Ten times as many people are killed" = 100, but "Ten times more murders" = 110. And since I was able to quote an Authority, at least I know I have the NYT on my side.
6.20.2006 5:41pm
Hedberg:
"that's what the usage means in colloquial English. Perhaps you weren't previously familiar with the usage. That's OK. Now you are."

Wrong on both counts, I'd say.

Repeat as needed.
6.20.2006 5:45pm
Paul Johnson (mail):
Don't let's use that formulation. Just say "one-tenth of," and there is no possibility of misunderstanding.
6.20.2006 5:47pm
Anonymous dude:
A little off the subject, but I wonder just what exactly Russ's formerly Russian wife was referring to when - on the occasion of their meeting - she said that something was "10 times less" than something else.

I'm with Eugene on this one.
6.20.2006 5:49pm
Michael Lopez (mail):
You are all missing the point.

"Ten times higher" and "Ten times lower" are multiplying a difference between two objects to describe a third object.

If you say that the A is "ten times higher" than B, what you are saying is that A is "ten times higher" than B is higher than zero. The fact that one is usually operating from a base of zero makes this a common expression.

When you start talking about "ten times lower" though, you run into a problem in that there is no base referent.

Frank is two times shorter than John is....

.... shorter than what?

If Frank is two feet tall, and John is four feet tall, and Susan is six feet tall, then Frank is two times shorter than John is than Susan, but John is twice as tall as Frank (is than the ground).

These sort of comparisons require a referent, and when you don't have one, it's sloppy and imprecise language. Often, the referent will be implied, but if it isn't then it's breaking the rules of logical sentence construction -- rules that, like the serial comma rule -- don't really mean much until something major gets screwed up because people are being imprecise.

-Michael
6.20.2006 5:52pm
Zed (mail) (www):
Matt:

The problem is that in colloquial English in other locations, it means 110. Perhaps you weren't previously familiar with the usage. That's OK. Now you are.

It rather demands the question of which colloquial usage one should rely upon — and this discussion lends itself to the answer, "None, of course." There's a reason why colloquialisms are frowned upon in formal writing.

However, as it relates to the original question, I don't think an issue of confusion exists. It's hard to tell with colloquialisms, of course, but I don't know of any place where "x times smaller" leads to a similarly ambiguous, but still plausible result.

It's certainly an awkward construct that should probably be avoided, but it's not as bad as in the other direction.
6.20.2006 5:52pm
BobN (mail):
Can we all agree that it's been pretty much downhill ever since the Congress decided to form "oversight" committees?
6.20.2006 5:53pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Noah,

Thanks for the advice. Let me rephrase that comment:

"Language is a grown order; therefore, it doesn't adhere perfectly to the rules of logic, or to any other set of prescribed rules. It makes its own rules as it goes. Whether you like it or not, this is simply the nature of language. The fact that you may not be able to parse the phrase 'ten times lower' using ruthless logic, and arrive at a certain understanding of what it means, doesn't invalidate the usage. Meaning proceeds from usage, not from the rules of logic. Thus the relevant question isn't what you think 'ten times lower' should mean, logically. The relevant question is what it does in fact mean. And what it means is 'one tenth.'"

There you have it. But that took a lot longer than the original comment, and I very much doubt it's going to persuade anyone who isn't already persuaded by the time they've read down the page far enough to reach this comment. Furthermore, I don't think there's anything in that much longer version that a reasonably intelligent person (there are many here) wouldn't have deduced from my original observation that "language is a grown order." So what have I gained through all those extra words, and all the time I spent typing them?
6.20.2006 5:53pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
I have no idea if this book, Twice As Less, is valid or crankery, but it argues that this exact kind of confusion can have real cognitive effects. On the other hand, if "ten times less" is 100% standard in Russian, as someone suggested above, I'd be foolish to conclude that Russians must be bad at math.

Now...I will say that it never occurred to me that "four times bigger" means (or should mean) 5 times that size, but now that my attention is drawn to it I'll wonder every time I see it. And (extrapolating) that means that nobody should ever use it; because a listener like me will be forced to wonder whether the writer meant the hyper-correct thing or the common (technical) error.

In general, I suggest that the people willing to use "ten times less" should apply the principle of charity, and understand that those of us who oppose it are not being deliberately obtuse; we find it genuinely jarring. It is, all other things being equal, the writer's job to make things easy for the reader, rather than to insist (when there's a known controversy around something) that the readers should figure out the writer's meaning and to hell with them if they get tripped up.
6.20.2006 5:54pm
Erin (mail) (www):
The problem most folks are having here is that they're trying to apply formal/mathematical logic to the expression, when what's been applied in this usage is linguistic logic. I think all of us can agree what "ten times higher" means. "Ten times lower" is just a substitution of the antonym of "higher" to get the meaning that refers to division rather than multiplication. This is perfectly logical because we are not computers, or robots, whose reasoning skills are MORE LIMITED than ours. If you have a problem with a colloquial expression in common usage, then don't use it. You can't say someone who uses it is wrong if everyone else understands her.
6.20.2006 5:59pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Oops! The comment addressed to Noah, above, should've been addressed to Eh Nonymous. Sorry about that!
6.20.2006 6:04pm
Shangui (mail):
Shangui - What is the answer, then? Show it to me... The fact that we are haggling only means that the author failed to communicate clearly.

The answer is 1/10th, as many people have said above. The fact that we are haggling could equally mean that some people are simply obsessed with problems of clarity that don't really exist. If I say I put my money in the bank and you respond that you have no idea whether my money is kept at a financial institution or buried in the mud beside a river, then I'm not failing to communicate clearly, you're simply being obtuse.
6.20.2006 6:14pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Erin (and others): in those contexts where we wish to apply prescriptivism as opposed to descriptivism, "you know what I mean" isn't a valid defense of a given usage. Plenty of constructs, such as "ain't" and "can't get no" [as in Satisfaction...] are universally understood, and yet they're still not recommended for use in formal writing. I think we all agree that the meaning of "ten times less" is extractable; perhaps our disagreement is that (once my attention is drawn to it) I think it's too colloquial for a Slate piece (especially one that's from an outsider about "what's wrong with Slate"!), and others don't see it as colloquial at all.

And, to hit it from another angle, "mathematical logic" vs "formal logic" is a valid distinction, but not so much when you're making a mathematical statement.
6.20.2006 6:21pm
JGR (mail):
Incidentally, what Matt said is pretty much the standard view of language theorists. Logical positivism and a desire to make language adhere to the laws of mathematics (I'm oversimplifying) was all the rage in the 1920's and 1930's. Its leading pupil Wittgenstein was also responsible for recognizing the limits of that exercise, and began popularizing the notion that language had to be understood as a social and non-formalist arena.
6.20.2006 6:24pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Is there a one word synonyn for "intentionally obtuse." I've wanted to use it in my comments, and I'm sure I'll have occasion to use it again.

Also, I'm very disappointed that my screen name hasn't elicited any comments, as I thought it quite clever. It's a comment on my politics (libertarian tinged coservatism) as well as a mildly offensive allusion to Snoop Dogg/rapper expression. Quite an unusual amalgamation, no?
6.20.2006 6:25pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Zed,

Which locations? Could you give me an example? (A link would be ideal.) I just Googled the phrase "ten times more." Several of the links on the first results page don't give enough information to let me determine whether, in context, the phrase means (x+10x) or 10x. But among those that do provide enough information, in all cases it appears that "ten times more" means 10x. Again, that's just the first page of a Google search; it's hardly conclusive evidence. But it is evidence. (I could keep going, but the search retrieved 1,030,000 results and there's a limit to how much time I'm willing to devote to this little project.)

As I said in my first comment, I prefer to avoid the "times lower than" construction because it strikes me as sloppy and imprecise. But really, I think people are making far too much of it. I think its meaning is fairly clear. And on further reflection, I'd add that it really doesn't matter whether the author of the original Slate piece to which Eugene referred meant (x+10x), or 10x. For purposes of a publication like Slate -- which is not a formal academic publication -- whether the American crime rate is 1000% or 1100% is just a technical detail; the important point is that the American crime rate is (or rather was alleged to be) much higher than Canada's. Presumably there are very few readers who'd say, "oh, well, 10x would be fine, but by golly, 11x is just out of control!"
6.20.2006 6:26pm
Jay (mail):
"The problem is that in colloquial English in other locations, it means 110."
What other locations? I have never encountered misunderstanding over what "10 times more" than a starting point of 10 means. I highly doubt that you, or Forest Girl, either naturally assume the phrase means 110, or would spend several minutes paralyzed with confusion at what the speaker meant, before throwing up your arms and deciding to go with an average of 105.
6.20.2006 6:28pm
Markusha:
As a Russian, I can confirm that expressions "10 times more" or "10 times less" are absolutely standard and non-ambiguous in Russian language. In Russian, "X is 10 times more than Y" means that X is equal to Y times 10; similarly, "X is 10 times less than Y" means that X is equalt to Y divided by 10.
Just my 2 cents.
6.20.2006 6:29pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
No response on the name, huh? I mean, it's no allusion to early 20th century German expressionist film, but it's not bad.
6.20.2006 6:29pm
Matt22191 (mail):
Erratum: "whether the American crime rate is 1000% or 1100% . . . " should be "whether the American crime rate is 1000% or 1100% that of Canada . . ."
6.20.2006 6:32pm
Matt22191 (mail):
DRWN,

I like it. But at first glance I thought it was a somewhat unflattering allusion to the rest of us.
6.20.2006 6:34pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Aieee...I now see that I ascribed an error to Prof. Volokh that is actually in the article to which his Slate piece refers. Sorry.
6.20.2006 6:35pm
Matt22191 (mail):
DonBoy,

Who is this "we" you speak of? I don't wish to apply prescriptivism as opposed to descriptivism in this case. Why should I?
6.20.2006 6:42pm
JGR (mail):
Several of you here appear uncomfortably swayed by the New York Times. Almost everyone uses the phrases under discussion exactly as Volokh uses them. I've never heard them used otherwise, and as already noted in excruiating detail, the meaning of a colloquial phrase is what it is usually taken to be. Yet people are triumphantly pouncing on this:

"Writers who speak of three times more or three times faster often mean 'multiplied by 3,' but precise readers are likely to understand the meaning as 'multiplied by 4'

If I always hear the phrase used in the first manner, and then I read this in the New York Times, I'm going to translate that sentence into this: "Almost everyone uses three times faster to mean times three, but technically it can also mean multiplied by 4". What I'm going to flatly insist on is that their statement "are likely to understand the meaning as 'multiplied by 4' is flatly wrong. If almost everyone uses the phrase in one way, they ARE NOT going to assume it is used in a different way; At most, they will say that they are not sure how it is being used. Several commenters here seem to suggest that if a colloquial phrase is almost always used one way, but the New York Times says something different, that somehow CHANGES the fact that the phrase is almost always used one way and not another.

If the New York times were to write "Precise readers are likely to understand the phrase 'the blind leading the blind' as someone who is physically unable to see leading someone who is physically unable to see" the fact that it was written in the New York Times wouldn't make it so.
6.20.2006 6:43pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
The usage is simply mathematically incorrect.

I have a ton of trouble seeing how this could possible be incorect. Whatever your disagreement here, the math isn't wrong. This disagreement is about how precisely one should undertstanding the meaning of an English sentence mathematically.
6.20.2006 6:44pm
Tom Anger (mail) (www):
There aren't enough comments in this thread. To beef up your comment count, post something about baseball.
6.20.2006 6:50pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Matt22191: Sometimes "we" (ok, "I", fair enough) need to play the prescriptivism game, even if I am in general a descriptivist when speaking about how language "is". Or, to put it in a way that I haven't noticed but I'm sure is not original, "prescriptivism" is descriptivism of the dialect of English that ends up in publications such as the New York Times, or Slate. That is, I admit, both circular and subject to enormous considerations of class.

On the other hand, even in that mode I'm enough of a descriptivist that the line of questioning in much of this thread, that of "but is anyone at all really confused by these usages?" seems to me to be on target. If nobody's confused, that's relevant information. And yet, if something's a shibboleth that marks one's usage as "not formal", that's also a raw fact -- at a particular moment in the evolution of the language, at least.
6.20.2006 6:56pm
Matt22191 (mail):
lol! Very good, Tom. I'm sometimes shocked at the things that provoke heated debate here (even when I'm one of the debaters).

DRWN,

"Obdurate" may not be exactly the word you're looking for, but one of its meanings ("resistant to persuasion or softening influences") is fairly close.
6.20.2006 7:01pm
Wombat:
Again, for all the 'it is obvious!' crowd:

What does "One Times More" mean?
A) One Times X = 1*X = X (i.e. you have colloquially negated the More)
B) One Times X More of/than X = 1*X + X = (1+1)X

Depending on the reader's dialect, either definition could be valid, and B) is actually mathematically accurate. Because of the potential confusion, the above is bad grammar and should be avoided. (And if A was what you intended, than the More is superfluous and thus twice bad grammar.)

Although I do like the comments that think A) is obvious and proper (e.g. logicnazi - if only you lived up to your name, doubly embarassing coming from someone with a technical background) intensely humorous, because we entirely negate or ignore words (the more) in proper english all the time, right?
6.20.2006 7:02pm
Wombat:
Again, for all the 'it is obvious!' crowd:

What does "One Times More" mean?
A) One Times X = 1*X = X (i.e. you have colloquially ignored the More)
B) One Times X More of/than X = 1*X + X = (1+1)X

Depending on the reader's dialect, either definition could be valid, and B) is actually mathematically accurate. Because of the potential confusion, the above is bad grammar and should be avoided. (And if A was what you intended, than the More is superfluous and thus twice bad grammar.)

Although I do like the comments that think A) is obvious and proper (e.g. logicnazi - if only you lived up to your name, doubly embarassing coming from someone with a technical background) intensely humorous, because we entirely negate or ignore words (the more) in proper english all the time, right?
6.20.2006 7:04pm
IceGuy:
None of these comments seem to have properly identified the problem with this use of lower/higher or smaller/greater. It's probably too late now, but here goes…

If I say that the crime rate in the US is 15% higher than the crime rate in Canada, we all know that I mean that the difference is 15% of the crime rate in Canada, so we can get the crime rate in the US by multiplying Canada's rate by 0.15 and adding the result to Canada's rate. That's because the lower/higher formulation is an additive differential comparison, not a multiplicative one. That is, the 15% is the relative difference.

To clearly imply what the author meant, we should say any of "10% of", "one tenth of", "one tenth as large as" — all multiplicative comparisons — or "90% less than", "90% lower than", or "90% smaller than" — all additive differential comparisons.

The first three of these are preferred, since comparisons of two numbers are best stated as relative differences when the ratio of the larger of two numbers to the smaller is less than two, and as ratios otherwise. Thus, one should say "15% larger/smaller" or "50% greater/smaller than", and "2.5 times" or "one third of", but not "150% more than" or -- by far the worst -- "3 times smaller than."

It doesn't matter that one can figure out what the author meant; it stops your flow of thought to do so, and hence is not the best style.

ForestGirl and the New York Times style manual have it right. Take it from an Engineer/Mathematician.
6.20.2006 7:04pm
eeyn524:
Time to point out that in social science stats of this type there's no meaningful distinction between x10 and x11. Different definitions of crime, crime rate, methods of counting swamp out any differences at this level; and that's before you get into the intentional fudging of the numbers.
6.20.2006 7:04pm
JGR (mail):
In an alternate universe, this discussion went as follows, (highly abridged, of course)

Eugene Volokh: A writer writes, appropos my article, "Eugene Volokh writes that a policy consists of "the blind leading the blind", but this isn't true because they're not physically unable to see" (Explanation follows not really incorrect)

guest: "blind leading blind" = clueless leading clueless

russ: "The usage is simply linguistically incorrect. I first heard this usage when I met my (formerly Russian) wife and it just sounded wrong. I was 40 at the time and I'm fairly well read and I've just never seen it before. Guess that makes me weird or something.

Mahlon: "The word "blind" refers to being physically unable to see. Your usage is simply wrong. Your meaning therefore is vague and the sentence plainly ridiculous. It cannot be. Such usage indicates an inability to think clearly. You are wrong.

logicnazi: "blind leading blind just MEANS clueless leading clueless"

Dean Kimball: "I agree with the Russ and the original criticism. "the blind leading the blind" is simply inaccurate. Yes, we could all agree to a meaningful definition of this phrase and move on. However, I believe language matters. If we make the small effort required to remove any ambiguity (say "the clueless leading the clueless" instead of "the blind leading the blind"), we are being accurate wihtout sacrificing clarity and consistency of language.

SeanF: "the difference between being blind and being clueless is the difference between not being able to physically see and not knowing what is going on.

That is why I think this usage is problematic.

You're right that it's only wrong if it's defined as wrong, but that's true of any language rule, isn't it?

Forestgirl: "Not sure whether you would consider this an Authority, but it explains what I don't understand about that formulation:
"Precise readers are likely to understand the phrase 'the blind leading the blind' as someone who is physically unable to see leading someone who is physically unable to see"

guest: "I'm confused as to how the wording is in any way ambiguous. Is it reasonable to infer that physically blind people are leading physically blind people?

Seems to me that this is just further evidence that, on the internet, there will always be someone to criticize something, no matter how silly that criticism is.

PAC: "It's not really plausible to claim, as some commenters have, that the phrase "the blind leading the blind" is unclear and leads to confusion. Everyone understands the person who uses that formulation to mean "the clueless leading the clueless"

The problem for those of us who tend to nitpick is simply that, while such a misusage is perfectly decipherable (as a result of it being so common), it is still a misusage because "blind" doesn't mean "clueless"

jgr: I believe I can summarize the main points.

1) "the blind leading the blind is generally used in the sense that Volokh used it, or at least that is how I have always heard it used. I wouldn't say - as some commenters have - that Volokh is misusing them because you can't misuse a colloquial phrase by definition - it means what it means.

2) Like many colloquial phrases, it means something different when translated technically. The problem appears to be that many people haven't actually heard it used that way, and if they attempt to discover its meaning by pure thought it may mean something different.

3) Since many people apparantly have never heard this phrase, it may be best to avoid it as some commenters suggest.

4) Bear in mind that this is true of all colloquial phrases and this is really all we're talking about. I was an English major in college but I have never before now thought it odd to use "the blind leading the blind". You don't think about the inherant logic of colloquial phrases until you run into someone who isn't familiar with it.

5)Mahlon said "Such usage indicates an inability to think clearly." I sometimes disagree with Mr. Volokh, but having read him for several years, I can safely say that if your premise leads you to the conclusion that he can't think clearly, you should check your premise.

hedberg:
The comments in this thread indicate quite well the confusion that can result from these imprecise usages and justify the rule quoted by ForestGirl:

blind = blind
clueless=clueless
If a reader has to guess what a writer means by "the blind leading the blind," how can a reader possibly interpret anything else they say with any confidence?

Deezrightwingnutz: I don't know why people complain about the usage colloquial phrases that don't make sense when analyzed technically. I could care less.

Matt22191: [explains jgr right]

forestgirl: Matt, I'm not buying it. blind means physically unable to see

Okay, I'm gonna stop since this took a ridiculous amount of time. It reminds me of that recent story where the guy dug a 60 foot hole in his yard and said "he just got carried away". I only meant to do a few spoofs, and just got carried away.
6.20.2006 8:00pm
Vintner:
"ten times lower" is complete nonsense, totally unclear. I can't imagine anyone's defending it.
6.20.2006 8:01pm
Chimaxx (mail):
You're moving from the world of logic to the world of copyediting (in fact, I believe I saw this vary issue discussed in my the same ways in the issues of Copy Editor magazine a few years back.

People are defending the phrase because it is colloquial. That's fine, for speech and for casual writing (personal letters and blogs). It's fine if the actual numbers aren't important and if what you're trying to get across to your readers is that "it's a really big difference." But I wouldn't want to see it in a newpaper or magazine article, a demographic study, a medical journal or a legal brief--anywhere that precision and clarity matters.

It is no harder to write "one tenth" or "10 percent" than "10 times less"--in fact it is easier, since they take up both fewer characters and fewer words. And the first two have the added benefit of being logically accurate (they mean the same thing mathematically and logically as they do colloquially), whereas someone trying to logically or mathematically figure out "10 times less" might take that to mean 9 percent (roughly) or something less than zero.

So if the difference in crime rates is tangential to your point, it is a BIG difference, you're speaking or you're writing in a relatively casual forum or publication, and all you're really trying to show is that there is a big difference (and people are unlikely to want to figure out the exact numbers), then "10 times less" is perfectly acceptable. If you're writing in a forum where precision matters, or this is just one of several comparisons you're making (e.g., "the crime rate in Canada is 10 times less than in the US and 14 times less than in Mexico") you're better off using more precise terms.
6.20.2006 8:03pm
PoohPooh Bear:
Interesting that one of the first commenters mentioned his formerly Russian wife using similar expressions , 10 times less. Must be a Russian thing since my formerly Soviet wife has the same pattern, in her case 'twice as less' instead of 'half as much'. I always thought it was incorrect and preferred "one tenth" or one half of.
6.20.2006 8:03pm
Matt22191 (mail):
OK, Don. Fair enough. I agree that there are certain contexts in which it's necessary to play the prescriptivist game. I certainly write differently for courts than I do in blog comments. And perhaps "x times lower than" is a fairly informal usage. But Eugene is a relatively informal guy, even in his academic writing. It seems to work for him. And Slate is hardly a law journal. I just don't think the usage is too informal for Slate. In fact, if Eugene had any doubt on that point he might have found reassurance in the fact that the Slate article he was critiquing used precisely the same construction!

And by the way, I'm not sure that "x times lower than" is as informal as you suggest. I just ran a law review search in Westlaw's LAWREV-PRO database. The phrase "ten times lower" appears 26 times in law reviews and journals dating back to 1995. That's not a lot, but remember that those results are for law reviews and journals, which are considerably more formal than Slate. ("Ten times more" appears 796 times. The oldest result is a 1953 note in the Stanford Law Review.) Perhaps someone else feels like searching the NYT's archives.
6.20.2006 8:07pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I understood that Professor Volokh meant "ten times lower" to mean "one tenth," but I agree with others' criticisms that this phrase is potentially vague (to some readers) and sloppy. Since we all seek clarity in, and to persuade others by, our writing, why not drop it?
6.20.2006 8:16pm
Tom952 (mail):
Well,
here, we read that "three times less" is OK with IBM, and according to the N.Y. Times here, "the rate of infection with misoprostol was 12 times lower,", and here the Times reports that Dr. harvey Sugerman says "extremely obese patients had death rates as much as five times lower".

A search of the N.Y. Times turned up many examples of "times less" or "times lower". It is commonly used.
6.20.2006 8:36pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
Oddly enough, I often try to avoid "x times lower", because I'm uncomfortable with the literal reading, but judging from the commentary here, the meaning is understood, even as many recognize the literal problem.

I've never tried to avoid "x times higher" because it makes perfect sense to me... but judging from this discussion, more people don't know what I mean when I say that (x times higher than y is x*y; I've never considered it as "(x+1)*y") than when I saw "x times lower".

I'll probably continue to be uncomfortable with the former, irregardless.
6.20.2006 8:50pm
Chris Fulmer (mail):
The problem is that the next question is "10 times lower when compared to what?" "Lower" is a relative term.

Suppose that the standard height for the top of a door is 72", and I have a 70" door -- the top of my door is 2" lower. The top of your 52" door is ten times lower. Under common construction, the top of your door would only be 7".

If you and I both start with $1M in a bank account, I burn through $10K and you burn through $100K, then yours is ten times lower than mine is.

If a $20 book is on sale for $19 and then is marked down 10 times lower, it ends up at $10, not $1.90.

I agree that this construction is commonly used, even among academics. But, that's hard indicative of correct usage. I'm sure that we can all point to common gramatical errors -- my pet peeve being the variety of ways in which people misuse the word "myself."
6.20.2006 9:13pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
I'm just glad the Professor got that email regarding his original usage, and chose to make it public, because I wasn't 100% certain as to whether I was meant to divide the US rate by 10 to get the supposed Canadian rate, or not, when I read the passage. And number usage is the hardest part of Russian for me, go figure.
6.20.2006 9:16pm
Addanz:
Your usage is mathematically clear and correct, although obviously -- as we see from the comments above -- confusing to some. When writing for a general audience its probably best to minimize confusion among those who are not comfortable with math and use the form which your reader recommended.
6.20.2006 9:24pm
James Taranto (mail) (www):
By your logic, if Canada's crime rate were equal to the U.S.'s, it would be "one time lower."
6.20.2006 9:56pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
By your logic, if Canada's crime rate were equal to the U.S.'s, it would be "one time lower."

If "ten times lower" means dividing by ten, then "one time lower" would, indeed, mean dividing by one; in other words, not changing the original number. "One time lower" proves that the "times lower" usage is incoherent.
6.20.2006 10:50pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
It's not really plausible to claim, as some commenters have, that the phrase "X is ten times lower than Y" is unclear and leads to confusion. Everyone understands the person who uses that formulation to mean that "Y divided by ten is X."
I don't. I assume that someone who means that would say, "X is ten percent/one tenth of Y". Therefore, I assume that they must mean something different when they use a bizarre expression like "ten times lower."

I may eventually work it out from context that they mean what you claim they mean -- but language that is confusing enough that it needs to be worked out from context is (to use a technical linguistics term) crappy. In particular, oral use of such language is horrid, because while the listener stops to puzzle out what the speaker is saying, he misses the next words said by the speaker.
6.20.2006 10:50pm
byomtov (mail):
Doesn't this thread prove that it is unwise to use this construction, on simple grounds of lack of clarity?
6.20.2006 10:54pm
guest:
Shiperect: when was the last time you've heard "one time lower"? I've never heard that, because it means multiplying by one... which proves that the good prof's usage of "x times lower" is correct.

For those who are anal about precise grammar, "times" does not mean addition, it means multiplication. You want to claim the need to be precise, but then you throw addition in there for no reason.
6.20.2006 10:59pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Shiperect: when was the last time you've heard "one time lower"? I've never heard that, because it means multiplying by one... which proves that the good prof's usage of "x times lower" is correct.

I've never heard it, but, by the Prof's logic, "one time lower" would still work as a sentence. It's an incoherent idea expressed correctly, according to Eugene's line of thinking.

For those who are anal about precise grammar, "times" does not mean addition, it means multiplication.

But "times lower" means multiplying by a fraction, or division. So why not just be clear to everyone and use the language of division in the first place?
6.20.2006 11:03pm
guest:
Ship: One time lower does work in a sentence. It's not an incoherent idea at all, it means dividing by one. I have no idea how that's an incoherent idea.

The reason you've never heard it is that it's stupid to say, because it's assumed that "one time lower" means dividing by one. If "one time higher" means what the 10x+x=11 folks think it means, then you would have heard "one time higher". That's the test for Volokh's question, and it demonstrates that "ten times larger" means 10x. Otherwise, you would have heard it.

As far as language, the important discrimination is times/division versus addition/subtraction. Multiplication and division are essentially the same thing.
6.20.2006 11:10pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Logic, James, shmogic. This is the English language we're talking about.
6.20.2006 11:15pm
Spoons (mail):
I've never been made so irrationally angry by any thread on any blog anywhere!

Count me as one who finds both usages confusing and wrong. What's driving me batty, though, are some on the other side who say, "Everyone knows what that means," or "no one would be confused by that," or "no one would interpret that phrase that way" -- despite dozens of comments by people who DON'T know what it means, ARE confused by that, and WOULD interpret the phrase that way. Feel free to argue that your usage is more correct, but when you claim that no one can possibly disagree with you in the face of dozens of people who do, you just look like a moron.

For the record, when I hear that something is "three times AS LARGE AS," I multiply by 3. When I hear "three times LARGER THAN," I multiply by 4.

I haven't the vaguest notion what "three times smaller than" would mean.
6.20.2006 11:31pm
Mike Keenan:
There is no ambiguity whatsoever in the usage "10 times lower." No native English speaker will misunderstand that. Which sounds better:

The crime rate of X is 4.6 times lower than the crime rate of Y.

The crime rate of X is one 4.6th the crime rate of Y.

I mean, get real people.
6.20.2006 11:38pm
Mike Keenan:
There is no ambiguity whatsoever in the usage "10 times lower." No native English speaker will misunderstand that. Which sounds better:

The crime rate of X is 4.6 times lower than the crime rate of Y.

The crime rate of X is one 4.6th the crime rate of Y.

I mean, get real people.
6.20.2006 11:38pm
Spoons (mail):
"There is no ambiguity whatsoever in the usage "10 times lower." No native English speaker will misunderstand that."

Bite me, you ignorant slut.

I am a native English speaker, and I would not be certain what was meant by "10 times lower."
6.20.2006 11:46pm
guest:
Is this argument a result of some weird difference in regional dialect?
6.20.2006 11:50pm
Mike Keenan:
"I would not be certain what was meant by "10 times lower.""

I don't believe you. You are smarter than that. Give yourself more credit.
6.21.2006 12:30am
marc:
This is the most fun I've had all day. Is it possible that the history of the phrases' usage might illuminate any of this? Not that I attend to the Times's stylebook but what it prescribes in this matter is what I learned in my schooldays, so long ago--near Cincinnati... am intrigued about the regional uses as suggested supra.

("Bite me, you ignorant slut"--is that a humorously intended quotation from a famous film?)
6.21.2006 12:37am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
When I saw that this thread had 91 comments, I was positive that it was hijacked by one of the usual suspects - in the direction of gay (non)rights, or bush-something-or-other. Apparently it's not been hijacked. Wow... yeah.

Well, anyway, my two cents: the intuitive understanding is that when something is 10 times lower than X, it is equal to X/10. So put me in that camp I guess... I just don't see how you can understand the expression to mean anything other than what I just described, imprecise and awkward as it may sound.

But then again, I'm a Russkie, and "v desyat raz menshe" is both grammatically correct and translates as "10 times less/lower." (Ditto Markusha).
6.21.2006 12:40am
wt (mail) (www):
We won the Cold War people. Why are we letting the Russians take back our language? Who's with me?

One tenth: It's the American Way.
6.21.2006 12:46am
marc:
Googled "times lower" usage and the first item that popped, from the American Fisheries something or other, was:

Quantitative Comparisons
Expressions such as 'Mortality was four times greater in the second treatment than in the first.' should be avoided because they are ambiguous. Logically, the expression "four times greater" means "five times as great," whereas most authors mean "four times as great." In the same vein, the term "times" should be avoided in describing decreases: 'The treatment value was one-fourth that of the control.' not 'The treatment value was four times lower than that of the control.'
6.21.2006 12:57am
18 USC 1030 (mail):
I gave up reading midway through so forgive me if this has already been said, but......there is no such thing as multiplication, subtraction, or division--they are all mere applications of addition. Therefore, the comment was wrong because it should have been written in its addition form, rather than the imaginary idea of multiplication.

/OR NOT?
6.21.2006 1:10am
Shangui (mail):
("Bite me, you ignorant slut"--is that a humorously intended quotation from a famous film?)

I believe it's from an old SNL news segment with Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd in which the latter would lose control in an argument and say, "Jane, you ignorant slut." But I was but a wee one for the early years of SNL so my memory is fuzzy about the exact context. I will say that SNL these days is TEN TIMES LESS GOOD than it was then. Sorry!
6.21.2006 1:11am
Truth Seeker:
It has laways annoyed me to read or hear X times lower or x times less. It makes no sense logically or mathematically, even if a lot of people are used to talking this way. Those that defend it just won't admit to their sloppy language. One-tenth is the correct and clear way to express a fraction.
6.21.2006 1:17am
marc:

Mathematically literate folks object to expressions like "my paycheck is three times smaller than it used to be" because "times" indicates multiplication and should logically apply only to increases in size. Say "one third as large" instead.

Paul Brian is an American professor. He asks, in his prefatory notes to Common Errors in English, "Does it oppress immigrants [my emphasis] and subjugated minorities to insist on the use of standard English?"

Shangui: You rattle my memory and I do recall the SNL routine, vaguely. It was much more amusing then than it is now, indeed. I doubt that I am every going to commit to a specific quantity of more or less than -ness again.
6.21.2006 1:32am
JGR (mail):
Um, what do you think it means that this post has generated more responses (all except one or two on topic) than any of the last 20 posts, and is (with my post) only two short of the 21st post?
6.21.2006 1:52am
JDNYU:
The comments pointing out that "x times lower" in this case wouldn't make sense if interpreted as multiplicative miss the fact that negative numbers sometimes do make sense. If you say that Mars's average temperature is 5 times lower than that of the Earth the resulting negative number would be plausible. (Better examples exist, of course.)

Saying "x times lower" isn't a cardinal sin; saying "1/x" is plainly clearer.
6.21.2006 2:10am
guest:
JDNYU: the statement about temperature only makes sense physically if you are talking about Kelvins, which is always positive. Otherwise, I don't know what 5 times colder than 20 degrees Celsius means.

I'm embarrassed that I keep checking the comments to this post.
6.21.2006 2:54am
jpaulg (mail):
The correct way to write the original statement should be "Canada has a crime rate 1/10th of the United States", or someting similar, rather than saying the crime rate is 10 time lower.

However, it takes willful parsing of the statement to turn it into something else. If the original sentiment had been expressed by a mathemetician, yes then there could be valid criticism for sloppy expression, but the author has clearly and plainly conveyed to the readers what his thoughts were.
6.21.2006 3:58am
five_wheels:
I just want to address the oft-used "No one will misunderstand this" defense.

That's not a valid argument for usage, even when true. If you gave Americans a spelling test, greater than 50 percent would probably spell "harass" as "harrass", or "minuscule" as "miniscule". No one will ever misunderstand either way, but that doesn't make it correct, or OK, or colloquial. It's still just wrong.
6.21.2006 5:42am
five_wheels:
Of course, many people these days also say that spelling doesn't matter as long as the meaning is clear. My opinion of that argument is that it's convenient for people to say things don't matter when they can't do them.

My opinion is that this also applies to using the word "times" correctly. I don't mean that as snarkily as it sounds, but I do think that's why there's so much defensiveness in this thread.
6.21.2006 5:46am
Stryker:
Question for the Russians:Do you have two phrases, one for x times Y and another for Y times greater than Y?For all, this leads to another issue. What is the difference between "X times Y" and "X times greater than Y?" Half claim that there is no difference and they both mean XY. The other half claim that the first means XY and the second means (X + 1)Y. However, if the first is right, then there is an unneeded redundancy, another problem with the construction.I tend to agree that the main issue is that of implied base. If the "more" construction is used, the point of reference is the original number. If it is not used, the point of reference is 0. As far as the "1 times more than" construction—I HAVE heard it to mean an increase of 100%. As for the "4.6 times less"… comment. There is a really nifty tool in math called percents. If you really mean 8/4.6, just say "X is 21.7% of Y."My personal thought is that I'd first think they were the same, then wonder if that is really what the author ment. Then lament the awkward phrasing, and then wonder what it was they've been saying for the last 5 minutes while my mind was wandering.And lastly, a comment for those who claim language is not math. Math is a subset of communication, both spoken and written. It is therefore a subset of language. There is language that is not mathematical and doesn't follow rules. When talking about math, there HAVE to be rules, or you might end up posting at the end of a 90-post thread in the middle of the night.
6.21.2006 10:03am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I understand what someone means when they say "ten times lower." They mean divide by ten. It still seems like a sloppy way of writing.
6.21.2006 10:03am
Tim Amulb:
guest:

"I don't know what 5 times colder than 20 degrees Celsius means."

-214.4 degrees.
6.21.2006 10:42am
SeaDrive (mail):
When you finish with "ten times lower" (which I think sounds ignorant), try "twice as less".

http://tinyurl.com/r2659
6.21.2006 11:21am
Gary McGath (www):
I haven't any idea what "ten times lower" means. My first guess would be that there had been a previous reduction, and that the latest reduction was ten times as great.

The first rule of any language is to say what you mean clearly. The phrase "ten times lower" for a number which has to be positive flunks that.
6.21.2006 11:25am
Christopher Cooke (mail):

I believe it's from an old SNL news segment with Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd in which the latter would lose control in an argument and say, "Jane, you ignorant slut."


The SNL skit was a takeoff of a 60 Minutes feature in the 1970s called Point and Counterpoint, which featured a prominent male conservative (James Kilpatrick) and prominent female liberal commentator (Shannon? Alexander) debating current affairs. SNL's version was much more entertaining. One correction: Dan would frequently begin his response to Jane with "Jane you ignorant slut" and launch into his mock conservative diatribe.
6.21.2006 11:57am
Rush (mail):
My Pet Peeve is Football announcers who refer to the "1 foot Line" or "1 inch line"...there is no &#$%@? line!!!!!!
6.21.2006 12:18pm
HBD:
This thread brings to mind a comment I read the other day on a different blog about the earnings of tennis players. In that case, the author explained how a player's salary was very high one year and then dropped precipitously the following year due to injury, poor play, etc. The author described this decline as being more than "750 percent."

Regardless of how you feel about "10 times less," I think we can all agree that if you want to use this construction, best not to recast it as "1000 percent less."
6.21.2006 12:22pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
If you would just give 110 percent effort, this would be easy.
6.21.2006 12:24pm
Michael Lopez (mail):
This is really silly. I made my initial comment explaining why the construction was (at best) ambiguous because I was under the impression that we were trying to have a useful conversation about this.

But the fact is that most of the comments seem directed at the "I'm right because most people understand" or "I'm right because most people don't understand" argument.

I'll say it one last time: THERE'S A MISSING PREPOSITION.

It actually reminds me of the single most useful T.V. SciFi quote ever:

Lyta: Damnit, I have earned some respect!
Kosh II: Respect? From whom?

It's exactly like "ten times lower" -- than what?

"A is ten times lower than B."

Guess what? B isn't "lower" than anything in that sentence. Ah... I'm not going to get into this again. Go up and read my first post.

It's a really useful thing to always fill out your implied prepositions, or at the very least, be aware of what you're implying in case there is confusion.
6.21.2006 12:25pm
anonymousss (mail):
its not confusing, and we have yet to see anyone cite an Authority condemning it.
6.21.2006 1:25pm
wt (mail) (www):
Anonymousss:

You made two false statements. Why would you make statements that are false? It's bad form.
6.21.2006 1:56pm
dweeb:
Imprecise language aids imprecise thinking.

That depends what your definition of 'is' is.

Seriously, words have meanings, and I find it astounding that a professor of law, of all things, is defending imprecise language. After all, the common man's perception is that lawyers must be paid per word.

Several commenters have attempted to defend this faulty usage, but none have offered a mathematically literate defense.

If our language is not precise and clear, then we have Orwell's Newspeak.
6.21.2006 2:20pm
Sigivald (mail):
I'm with Clayton Cramer on this one.

I don't like such usages, and I think they're better replaced with the perfectly good and clear constuctions English already has for such things ("a third" rather than "three times less") ... even though they're understandable in common use.

Michael: If B is a rate of 100 per 10,000, then if A is "ten times lower than" (1/10), the rate is 10 per 10,000.

The lower and higher here are not height relative to some unstated measure, but rates, relative to zero. (The problem, such as it is, being that English common use uses lower and higher to mean a smaller number and a higher number. This isn't much of a problem, if we don't let the coincidental relationship to their use for physical size confuse us.)
6.21.2006 2:28pm
American with BA English, MA Communications:
When I read "crime rate is ten times lower than", I think "ten times lower? That can't be right, he must mean one tenth. If he's that sloppy, maybe he just means a lot less (And is that one tenth of the total rate, which is hardly newsworthy given the population difference, or of the per capita rate, which would be shocking?)". So, yes, I do eventually understand it, but it breaks the flow of thought and gets me irritated with the writer. I would recommend that you avoid such constructions—unless you're writing in Russian, of course.
6.21.2006 3:34pm
John Marshall Robinson:
Did someone actually not know that "blind leading the blind" = "the unaware leading the unaware"?

Jeez.
6.21.2006 3:35pm
Mahlon:
It is astounding to me that people are defending this expression. Although I am happy for those who understood the sentence to mean that the crime rate in Canada was 1/10 that of the U.S., I could not glean that meaning from the passage. Saying "10 times" means to multiply. Saying 1/10, means to divide. Related concepts to be sure, but generally speaking, at least when using whole numbers, the results tend to go in different directions. It's like saying that adding two numbers will get you the same result as subtracting the same numbers. (Again, possible in certain cases, but not the norm).

It's like saying black is white. What you end up with is nothing but gray - a world where language is useless in making distinctions of meaning. Next, we will abolish subject-verb agreement, pronoun references and punctuation. We might as well go straight back to grunts and whistles.

As lawyers, which I assume most commenters here are, we should be especially senstive to imprecise use of language. Who here can honestly say that he has never read ambiguous statutory language. Think of the amount of time and money wasted in arguing the intent behind a legislative enactment.

The linguistic sin committed in the quoted passage is relatively minor. If most people believe that they understand what the author meant (and if, in fact, they do) the author was at least mostly successful. If you are satisfied with "good enough," however, then you should drop out of this conversation. There is a bigger issue at play which should not be brushed aside.

Americans are becoming increasingly illiterate. I have taught Masters candidates who cannot write a simple sentence. My children's elementary school teachers cannot spell. Acceptance of this abuse of the language perpetuates that abuse. My family, communityand nation are being infected with this disease.

But who am I to lecture all of you? Take some time to read the writings of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian.

http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/
6.21.2006 3:49pm
non_Lawyer:
Holy. Crap.

First, I must admit with embarrassment that I read all these 122 comments.

Second, I think that if all of us here were to put our collective time, talents, and energy together, we could solve some much more important problems than this.

And this comes from a professional wordsmith (who actually cares about stuff like this)!

I'd also like to announce that after the time I have wasted on this thread, I am ten times less likely to delve into such a comment-flurry again... ;)
6.21.2006 3:52pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
It is, in fact, possible to misunderstand times more in this way, but it takes a good deal of effort.... The commentators regard this as a serious ambiguity, [but h]ere again, it seems that they are paying homage to mathematics at the expense of language. The fact is that "five times more" and "five times as much" are idiomatic phrases which have -- and are understood to have -- exactly the same meaning. (The Blogfather quoting Websters in a followup note)

I can live with "five times more" and "five times less". For the former: "He has more than you. By how much? By a factor of five is how much more he has than you."

An SUV weights more than a motorcycle. A motorcycle weighs less than an SUV. A simple reversal. So if an SUV weighs ten times more than a motorcycle, then expressing it the reverse direction we say that a motorcycle weighs ten times less than an SUV.

There are some sticklers who grimace at "I'm with you 110%" on the basis that more than 100% is impossible. They are incorrect, even by the strictest mathematical interpretation. More than 100% is certainly possible, even of the same thing. (Obviously the cargo capacity of this truck can be 150% of the cargo capacity of this other truck.) But if I put 1100 pounds of stuff in the first truck, and it is only rated for 1000 pounds of stuff, then I will be operating it at 110% of capacity. Setting aside the built-in safety margins, if I make a habit of doing this the truck will wear out too fast, and it won't handle as well, but at the moment it's giving 110%. Of course, if by "I'm with you 110%" you think I mean "I'm with you at 110% of the maximum amount I could be with anybody", then the complaint is valid, and you are probably the type of person that when I say "Oh, I thought your house was smaller than it is" says "Nonsense, how could anything be smaller than it is?"
6.21.2006 6:17pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
On the other hand, I think it's incorrect to say "The unemployment rate is 112% more this quarter than last quarter" when you mean "The unemployment rate is 12% more ..." or "The unemployment rate is 112% of ..." I think it's because once you've got those precise numbers, you should be precise.

If there was a 12% difference in the unemployment between last quarter and this, does that mean last quarter's rate was 88% of this quarter's rate, or that this quarter's rate is 112% of last quarter's? (Difference implies directionality of the comparison less than "than".)
6.21.2006 6:25pm
Mark Hagerman (mail):
I've always assumed that "10 times lower" referred to a third number in a sequence.

95 is lower than 100. 50 is ten times lower than 95 (relative to 100).
6.21.2006 10:24pm
Truth Seeker:
I can't believe I agree with the New York Times on anything, but 1 times less is clearly zero so 2 times less or 10 times less is something negative and not the intended fraction.
6.21.2006 11:16pm
guest:
10x+x=11x. It's one-tenth times louder, isn't it. It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Eleven. Exactly. One-tenth times louder.
6.22.2006 12:30am
big dirigible (mail) (www):
Yes yes yes, we can all "figure out" what this clumsy statement of a straightforward mathematical relationship means, just as we can "figure out" what a speaker with poor grasp of English grammar thinks he means when he says something couched in syntactical rubbish. But in the case of the mathematical statement, the listener is left with the firm impression that the speaker's grasp of the math involved is a bit shaky. This is a sensible deduction, as we all know that most people's brain functions are instantly suppressed at the appearance of math or even simple numbers. This clumsy circumlocution just confirms that.

When numbers are involved, if you don't sound like you know what you're talking about, there's little point in saying it at all.
6.22.2006 2:35pm