Using Ice Cream To Understand Usage Debates:

I've found my invaluable Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) — if you love discussing English usage questions, you must get this — and found this lovely excerpt:

As for ice-cream, there is no such thing, as ice-cream would be the product of frozen cream, i.e., cream made from ice by melting. What is called ice-cream is cream iced; hence, properly, iced cream and not ice-cream.

It's a quote from an 1881 book by Alfred Ayres, and it's quite serious. Are you moved by it? Are you ready to condemn "ice cream" as wrong, wrong, wrong, because it's illogical and English usage that's illogical is therefore an error?

I doubt it, even if you're a sworn foe of "ten times lower." Yet if you're reconciled to "ice cream," and would today find the more logical "iced cream" to be too affected and puzzling to use, consider the point Webster's uses the Ayres quote to make: "It is sometimes instructive to take a look at the usage issues of the past, so that we may be chastened and not so easily carried away by those of the present."

* * *

Webster's, unlike the other usage books I have on my shelf, also speaks to "times less." It points to several commentators who have criticized "times more" and "times less" (which answers my question about whether there were such commentators — there are), but I think responds to them quite soundly. Here are some excerpts (paragraph break added):

The essence of [the critics'] argument is that since times has to do with multiplication it should only be used in comparing the greater to the smaller (as in "ten times as many" ...).... So goes the argument. It has, undoubtedly, a certain mathematical logic to it ....

[But] mathematics and language are two different things .... The question to be asked concerning such a construction as ten times less is not whether it makes sense mathematically, but whether it makes sense linguistically — that is, whether people understand what it means. The answer to that question is obviously yes. Times has now been used in such constructions for about 300 years [citing, among other sources, Gladstone], and there is no evidence to suggest that it has ever been misunderstood.

Webster's also defends "times more" (paragraph break added):

The [entirely different] argument [as to times more] is that times more ... is ambiguous, so that "He has five times more money than you" can be misunderstood as meaning "He has six times as much money as you."

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 "ambiguity" of times more is imaginary: in the world of actual speech and writing, the meaning of times more is clear and unequivocal. It is an idom that has existed in our language for more than four centuries [citing examples] ....


Eugene, not to be a stickler, but there's a typo in your first Webster quote: "ice-ceram" instead of "ice-cream"
6.21.2006 5:55pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
You probably drink "ice tea" rather than "iced tea," although "iced" is even more descriptive in the case of tea than in the case of frozen dairy deserts. But I am still holding the line for "old fashioned," even though "old fashion" is heard frequently.
6.21.2006 5:56pm
"Everyone" understands what I mean when I say "axe you a question," so presumably we can all start saying that in the courtroom and in business meetings, etc.. with no problems, right? It's no different than this case. It would take "a good deal of effort" to not understand what I meant, after all.
6.21.2006 6:04pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Are they hyphens significant in the ice-cream note? They tend to be omitted now in joining the words of a phrase which phrase is being used as an adjective.
6.21.2006 6:06pm
Allen Asch (mail) (www):
Irregardless, I could care less
6.21.2006 6:06pm
Brian Sniffen (mail):
And what of those of us who do write and say "iced tea" and "iced cream"? It's particularly easy for certain New York accents, which put a soft t/d noise there anyway. May we continue to cringe when we see "five times less" and "five times more," prefering the clear, simple, and forceful "five times as much" or "one-fifth as much"?
6.21.2006 6:07pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Markusha: Thanks, fixed!
6.21.2006 6:18pm
jimbino (mail):
When someone pronounces "gigabyte" with two hard g's, says "the hoi polloi" or "the software executes" or "if I was you" or "I axed my mother" or "ten times less," I understand what he means, all right. I also judge his level of education, his brain function and his attention to detail. Even the WASPy American, ignorant of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and most modern languages, is easy to spot by his almost total inattention to the transitive/intransitive and indicative/subjunctive distinction in English verb usage. These are folks you will understand and, maybe, choose to do your plumbing. I, personally, prefer to have my legal services, brain surgery and ballistic missile design performed by folks who pay attention to detail in their speech and writing.
6.21.2006 6:20pm
byomtov (mail):
This is an odd argument. Volokh cites authority to demonstrate that a colloquial phrase has a clear meaning, thereby ignoring the fact that half a threadload of people have just told him it's not clear to them.

Who are the prescriptivists here?
6.21.2006 6:22pm
John Armstrong (mail):
Steve Lubet: actually, I do drink iced tea.

The "ice cream" bit has been thrown in my face when I complain about (the seeming regionalism) "mash potatoes". I also get funny looks when I complain about grocery lanes marked "n items or less", when it should clearly be "or fewer".

In practical terms do I think these people are committing unforgivable sins? Hardly. I do take proper usage (or its lack) as a marker of the sort of respect a person affords his language, and tend to think less of someone who peppers his speech with misusages. Fair? Maybe not. It's a better predictor than skin color or genital shape, though.
6.21.2006 6:27pm
Sasha (mail):
(1) Half a threadfull is a self-selected Internet survey, and therefore unreliable.

(2) Even disregarding point (1), and as some commenters in the previous thread have said, I disbelieve those who say they don't find it clear. Not that they're lying necessarily, but as an economist, I don't think they have an incentive to be accurate about what they find clear in an linguistic-ideologically loaded discussion, and suspect that if someone told them they wanted ten times more than something -- in a context where you couldn't ask them what they meant -- they'd interpret it the "expected" way (i.e., 1000%, not 1100%). (This is similar to whether you should believe survey data on how much people would be willing to pay to preserve the Grand Canyon. Talk is cheap.)

(3) I think descriptivism and prescriptivism are bad label; I think we should all be descriptivists and prescriptivists at the same time. Specifically, we communicate to achieve a goal, and whatever doesn't achieve that goal is "wrong."

Using "axe" for "ask" is in fact CORRECT when you're communicating with people who use that word, and INCORRECT when you're talking with people who would take it as a sign of hickness IF your goal was not to convey that impression. "Ten times more" would in fact be incorrect if you're in a room full of people who said, see #2, they don't understand the usage, whether that means they really don't understand or just find it annoying; it's also incorrect in various scientific contexts; but it's correct in most colloquial contexts.

If some people in the community you're talking to do understand a phrase and others don't, then you do the cost-benefit analysis, and whether you're speaking CORRECTLY depends on whether you optimizing on the balancing.

That's all it means to speak rightly or wrongly. The prescriptivism is where I tell you that certain things are WRONG to say IF you're trying to achieve some communicative goal with a certain community. The descriptivism is where I tell that whether you achieve that goal entirely depends on what "language" your listeners are speaking, that is, what linguistic conventions they use.
6.21.2006 6:35pm
DrObviousSo (mail) (www):
It makes perfect sense for one value to be 10 times less, assuming its being compared to something that is 1 times less than something else.

For example, it takes my wife 100 minutes to finish her shower. I take a 95 minute showers. I take 5 minutes less. My brother takes 50 minutes for a shower. His is ten times less than mine is.
6.21.2006 6:37pm
David M. Nieporent (www):

If the argument, "It shouldn't mean that, because it's not logical" is not compelling to you, how on earth can the Webster's position of "It shouldn't confuse people" be compelling?

Whether or not it "should" confuse people is irrelevant; as the previous comment thread demonstrates, it does do so. And if so, how can you defend its usage (unless you adopt the position of one commenter who insisted that anybody who claimed confusion was lying)?
6.21.2006 6:39pm
dw (mail):
To echo DrObviousSo's point, there is actually no mathematical logic to limiting the use of 'times' to comparing the greater to the smaller. The result of multiplication does not have to be larger. 0.5 multiplied by 0.5 is 0.25.
6.21.2006 6:54pm
kimsch (mail) (www):

Those are some mighty long showers. Do you run out of hot water? ;>}
6.21.2006 6:56pm
pp (mail):
I don't think ice cream is wrong. The origin of ice cream is French. In French the word is glace, the same as the word for ice. Ice cream is a description of a variety of ice. The process turns cream into ice. Note their is also ice milk. Iced cream implies that the cream is combined (French "melange") with ice which is incorrect. Iced tea is correct because tea is combined with ice for its cooling effect.
6.21.2006 7:11pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Iced tea is correct because tea is combined with ice for its cooling effect.

Theadjack, but... I've always made iced tea by putting it in the refrigerator. Same with iced coffee. No ice necessary, just a coolant (combining ice with hot beverages makes them a lot weaker, anyway). "Iced" to me doesn't mean "combined with ice" but "cooled." "On ice" would involve blocks of frozen water.
6.21.2006 7:25pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Byomtov and David Nieporent: Sasha beat me to my response; his points 1 and 2 strike me as exactly right.

When some people say, in a usage debate about "times less," that they are confused by what "the violent crime rate in Canada is 10 times lower than in the United States" means -- even though it's hard to imagine it meaning anything else than "1/10 that in the United States" -- I'm more than a little skeptical. I've at times gotten carried enough away by my own arguments that I'll exaggerate my sense of confusion or lack of understanding for the sake of rhetorical effect (though I regret it later); I suspect others are the same way.
6.21.2006 8:04pm
"Half a threadfull"

Shouldn't that be "two times less than a threadfull?"
6.21.2006 9:01pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
How many people say something like "the Dodgers are winning" when describing a baseball game that is still in progress, rather than "the Dodgers are leading?" How many people pay attention to the "who" versus "whom" distinction in their everyday speech? How is Eugene's example any different from my examples? Everyone understands what I mean if I say the Dodgers are winning, even though the game is not finished, or use who when I should use whom. This understanding, however, does not make my usage correct, unless we have no rules of English grammar except rules defined by popular use and comprehension.
6.21.2006 9:04pm
Windypundit (www):

I think the "times more" usage genuinely confuses people because of its relationship to "percent more." If you earn 10 times what I do, you might say you are earning "10 times more" than me, and you might even say you are earning "1000% more" rather than the mathematically correct "900% more." If you earned 100 times what I do, you would almost certainly say "10000% more" instead of "9900% more."

But how about at the low end? If you earn "100% more" than me, do you earn "1 times more" or "2 times more"? Where does the difference between n and n-1 start to matter, and is it different for ratios and percentages?
6.21.2006 9:10pm
pete (mail) (www):
As Monty Burns said, "Why, Smithers, I'm beginning to like this so called 'iced cream'"
6.21.2006 9:30pm
Brian McDaniel (mail):
I used to design ballistic rockets for a living and I, and every technically-oriented person I know, has always pronounced gigabyte with two hard "g"s. I also pronounce nuclear as "new-klee-ur."

You may judge my level of education by noting that my postgraduate degree was awarded by Harvard.
6.21.2006 9:36pm
Shane (mail) (www):
Concerning the "x times more" phrase being confusing - it doesn't sound ideal to me. In fact, I would say that I never use the "x times more" construction in any situation. If I have $100 and my friend has $20, I say that I have "five times as much" money, not "five times more money." I could also say that I have 400% more than him, but I probably wouldn't describe it in this manner either.

In Mandarin Chinese at least, the above situation would result in me saying "My money is more than his by 4 times." This may be true for other languages as well, I'm not sure. Either way, I would probably recommend avoiding the "x times more," and it is probably even less desirable than the "x times less" phrase, since that one generally wouldn't be ambiguous in meaning.
6.21.2006 10:20pm
Years ago, we had the same debate on GIF files (hard or soft G) and SCSI (hard or soft). But I work in the computer industry and I don't recall the last time I head anybody use a soft G in speaking about disk or memory storage, but then maybe all of us computer people in the Pacific North West [near Microsoft land] are a bunch of hicks that don't speak rite.

P.S. Check the definition on WikiPedia:
In English the initial G of giga- can be pronounced with a soft G as in jig, or with a hard G as in giggle. The latter hard G pronunciation has become more common.
6.21.2006 10:33pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The point about gigabyte reminds me of a hilarious mock opinion in A P Herbert's The Uncommon Law (which consists of supposed British court rulings, and is quite funny).

An attorney states that this case concerns a writ of kert-ee-oh-raree..

Court interupts ... do you mean certiorari?

No, your honor, kert-ee-oh-raree... he goes on to state that it involves the questions of whether a particular act was ooltra-wee-rays...

Counsel, do you mean ultra vires?

No, your honor, ooltra wee rays.

This goes on for a time, until the court notes that counsel is obviously one of those fellows who prides himself on the claim that Julius Ceasar pronounced his name Yoolius Kaisar. The court has no idea how that august general pronounced his name, nor does it care. In the law, Latin is a living language, and like all such, has an evolving pronunciation.

The appeal is held in abeyance until appellant's counsel can learn a *modern* dialect of Latin.
6.21.2006 10:57pm
James Taranto (mail) (www):
Was Trostky killed with an ice pick or an iced pick? Just axing...
6.21.2006 11:23pm
Spoons (mail):
Cool! I've never been called a liar by a law professor before. A red-letter day, indeed. I shall remember how quickly the good professor resorted to "all those who disagree with me are lying" the next time I evaluate one of his arguments.

Nevertheless, when I hear "ten times as much," I think 10 * X. When I hear "ten times more," I think 11 * X -- although since I am aware that some people use that phrase differently, I generally am just not sure what they mean.

As for "10 times less", I find that jarring and at least initially, confusing. Often, after examining the context, it's clear that the reader must have meant "one tenth as much," but every time I read it it takes me out of the flow of the sentence and forces me to figure out what the author meant.

As a final aside, those who say, "language isn't math" are full of it. The language we're all arguing about is language being used to describe a mathematical relationship. If the language doesn't accurately convey that relationship, then it's wrong. It would be no answer to say, "well, language isn't math," if someone said that five was twice as big as two -- no matter how standard such an inaccurate usage might eventually become.
6.21.2006 11:36pm
Noah Nehm:
I read an opinion piece recently in which the author used the phrase: grew precipitously. Falling precipitously is one thing, but growing? Please....
6.22.2006 1:28am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Can't we just say Ben &Jerry's?
6.22.2006 2:53am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Spoons -- let's not say "lying," just "making somewhat disingenuous arguments in the heat of the moment." You did, after all, say that you've "never been made so irrationally angry by any thread on any blog anywhere!" Such irrational anger sometimes leads people to exaggerate.

You then went on to say, "I haven't the vaguest notion what 'three times smaller than' would mean." But now you say, "As for '10 times less', I find that jarring and at least initially, confusing. Often, after examining the context, it's clear that the reader must have meant 'one tenth as much,' but every time I read it it takes me out of the flow of the sentence and forces me to figure out what the author meant." So either you distinguish "three times smaller than" from "10 times less," or in fact you do have the vaguest notion what "three times smaller than" would mean, no?

Does that make you a "liar"? Well, I wouldn't (and didn't) use that term, partly because "liar" often seems to suggest pervasive moral failings, rather than just an excess in the heat of "irrational[] ang[er]." But I would (and did say), "I've at times gotten carried enough away by my own arguments that I'll exaggerate my sense of confusion or lack of understanding for the sake of rhetorical effect (though I regret it later); I suspect others are the same way."
6.22.2006 3:50am
Spoons (mail):
I still don't have the vaguest notion what 'three times smaller than' would mean. If you tell me that X is "three times less than 100," I would not know what you meant (well, actually, after spending too much time on the subject, I now know what YOU would mean, but I would not assume I would know what another author would mean). My first instinct, actually, if I read it without thinking too hard about it, would be that X=25 (by backward analogy from the fact that three times more than 100 equals 400).

The fact that I (or others) can sometimes or often suss out what the author is trying to say after stopping to examine the context doesn't change the fact that the usage is unclear and DOES lead to confusion. If the reader has to stop and look for other clues as to the meaning, that IS confusion.
6.22.2006 9:36am
Spoons (mail):
"So either you distinguish "three times smaller than" from "10 times less,"

Actually, I'm glad you said that, because it got me thinking.

What number is "two times more than" 100?

What number is "two times less than" 100?

I suspect that even many who express such confidence in times more and times less will be given pause by those two sceanarios. I REALLY have no idea what's "two times less than" 100.
6.22.2006 10:15am
Let's agree for the moment that the phrase "ten times lower" is an acceptable idiomatic expression. Why in the hell would you use it when trying to express a number? Why risk ambiguity? At least the author should acknowledge his ill-advised choice of words. If the writer did his job, there would be no debate about his meaning.

An idiom, like any word, is only as meaningful as it is generally accepted and used. I might use the word "briar" in describing a person and only a few of you know precisely what I mean by it. That does not make my usage incorrect. But it is surely ill-advised.
6.22.2006 11:13am
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Taranto: You, sir, have committed the second-worst joke in this thread.

I sentence you to grammar school, or to be put into a comma, for an indefinite period. Also you shall have your colon removed - or perhaps cut in twain, leaving you with a semi-colon. It will be halved - or as someone else said, above, "made two times lower."
6.22.2006 11:35am
Tracy Johnson (www):
Ah the tyranny of the printed word! English words, grammar and usage morphed tremendously from the 12th century to the 16th century. But once the printing press got its hands on our language, it has barely changed at all! Is English dying? Will it take some conquering power to move it out of the doldrums?

Add to that the tyranny of the recording! Prior to the Edison invention, we actually "know" how the all the letters are pronoounced. How can we know that letters weren't pronounced differently say, two hundred years before? Did the letter "B" actually sound like a "B" or something else?
6.22.2006 11:45am
Seamus (mail):

"Everyone" understands what I mean when I say "axe you a question," so presumably we can all start saying that in the courtroom and in business meetings, etc.. with no problems, right? It's no different than this case. It would take "a good deal of effort" to not understand what I meant, after all.

Hey, can we argue whether it's OK to pronounce the word "new-kya-ler" instead of "new-klee-er"?
6.22.2006 11:53am
lucia (mail) (www):

What number is "two times more than" 100?
What number is "two times less than" 100?

I asked my husband precisely these two questions yesterday evening. To question 1, he answered 200. He sipped his beer as I asked the second question. Then he answered 50.

I then described the various theories posted about the possible meanings and he just rolled his eyes and said "Oh, they are just making things up as they go along!"

I'm not going to make a tally of every comment on the other thread, but it seems to me that those who claim it may mean something else also claim they never use the construction.

If they never use it, then logically, when we hear it, we can be absolutely, positively confident we know what it means! It means what EV said it meant (and what the dictionary says it means, and what my husband and I think it means.)

That said, I would avoid the construction in formal writing, not because it's confusing, but because it's too wordy. This is better.

"X is 2 times more than Y".

Still, the fact that there are better constructions doesn't imply the one EV posted is somehow improper or confusing. We have many, many acceptable ways to say things in English. Heck, we have many words that mean practically the same thing!
6.22.2006 1:00pm
Ice cream is perfectly acceptable, because it is a product name and need not be strictly descriptive.

Are ice skates made of ice?
Are station wagons parked at stations?
A phrase like "10 times lower" is constructed of words with clear meaning and needs to conform to the rules of grammar, but a compound vowel does not fall under such restrictions.
6.22.2006 2:49pm
Regarding ice*d* cream. My understanding (from a linguistics class I once took) is that "iced cream" became "ice cream" through time as English speakers elided the "d" in speech. The same happened for words like "pop*ped* corn" and "roast*ed* beef."
Similar spoken-word changes include the change from "a nuncle" to "an uncle" and many more...
6.23.2006 4:41pm