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Friday, March 7, 2014

Language Pet Peeve

I learned language early.  My Godmother/Aunt worked on the big 1976  Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Mom was a dedicated teacher of her children (and as eldest child I got the full attention).  I could read before my fellow 1st-graders knew the alphabet, and I had a library card at 6.  By 12, I had read all the "young adult" books in the local library and was allowed to read the "adult" stuff (with adult pre-approval).  I even use semi-colons; who does THAT anymore?  ;)  I had a boss who actually removed a comma from one of the letters I wrote.  I (and a co-worker) were so surprised we did research in the Government Style Manual about it (turned out he was right) and I don't think I have ever put a comma in front of a dependent clause since.  So I should be a language snob, right?  Nah...  I am WAY more relaxed about it all these days.

I got over that fast in college and in my first job.  I can read bad documents and even tweets without cringing.  Everyone has different things that come easy.

But I have a peeve.  I noticed it a few years ago.  The first examples were rare and I considered them editing slips.  But I heard President Obama make the same error in a speech recently, and I consider him to be a really careful writer/speaker.

It's "4 times less" (or 3 or 2 or any number).  How can anything be "4 times less" than the whole?  If a sector of the economy is 10 billion dollars, what is 4 times less than that?  The whole of a number is "one times".  Well, what is 1 times 10 billion dollars?  It's 10 billion.  So 1 times less than 10 billion (10 billion minus 10 billion) is zero.

So what is "4 times less" than 10 billion?  -30 billion (10 billion minus 40 billion, or even -40 billion if you look it it in a certain way).  Well, money can be negative numbers.  But what is "4 times less" of a 10 pole?  Have you ever seen a minus 30" pole?

I cringe every time I hear the phrase "X times less than".  Yes, I know what they mean; "4 times less than" means 1/4.  But it just raises all the hackles of my brain (metaphorically speaking) every time I hear that phraseology!

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