One Pet Peeve

Comments: 8

I thought today I'd write about something that drives me crazy. It's only one of many things that do that to me, but one that I happened to notice this morning.

I see in a lot of places where people say or write something to the effect that something is X-times less or fewer or smaller than something else. Just this morning I read that scientists have developed a brush 1,000 times finer than a human hair. This is a mathmatical impossibility. Something can't be anything "times" smaller than something else. It can be a fraction of the size, amount, etc., such as 1/1,000th of the size, etc. That works but not 1,000 times smaller. Anything 1,000 times anything else would have to be larger.

I see this in the news media, and ever increasingly even in scientific journals. It's more than just poor grammar, it's not logical or mathmatical.

'Nuff said.

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

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  1. I am glad you pointed this out. It's one of those errors that has become acceptable with frequent use. That doesn't make it correct.

  2. Times doesn't just mean multiply, it can mean divided, so I always assumed they meant it like that - because saying 'the brush was finer than a human hair divided 1000 times' just takes too long.

  3. Yes it does. Any time you see the word "times" it means multiply - "Of" means to divide.

    Instead of saying something is so many "times" smaller, the proper way would be to say something is some fraction "of" the other thing. In this instance, the proper, grammatical way would be to say "The brush was 1000th of the size of a human hair."

  4. It would be understood much better - but 'times' can mean divide. It's mostly fallen out of use now (I think the only time you'd ever hear it used like that would be in this context!) but it did use to.

    From my dictionary: Used to indicate the number of instances by which something is multiplied or divided. But I think you are right in saying it shouldn't be used like that - I'd prefer people stop using it to mean 'multiplied by' as well. It just creates confusion.

    It's interesting, though, how language can change like that - from needing to say 'divided/multiplied by so-many times', to just 'times'. I sometimes think most of the ways language has evolved is through laziness :).

    This is probably a longer comment than you wanted ;). Very sorry!

  5. Ali,

    Don't worry about the length of your comments. I'm enjoying reading them, and appreciate your visiting my blog site.

    Thanks for commenting.


  6. This error drives me crazy, too. An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today declared that existing clean rooms at Georgia Tech are "four times smaller than those proposed" to be built. It was the second time this week I noticed a news article with a similar mistake.

    To be fair, I dislike the positive version of the idiom. Consider this sentence: Room A is four times larger than room B. The meaning is imprecise. If room A is 200 square feet, then room B might be 800 square feet or 1000 square feet. We can't know what the author intended. In fact, the author might have been thinking about the volume of the room, instead of the footprint. Perhaps room B has twice the width of room A and twice the height, but the length is the same. That would be "four times larger" in terms of volume, an important metric if one is designing an air handling system.

    The worst part is that some reference sites are beginning to affirm this idiom as legitimate, e.g. the entry for "on time" at As an engineer, I am bothered by the lack of precision. As a former GMAT instructor, my nerves are jangled by the mistaken idiom.

  7. Well K. Hawkins, I can't claim to be an engineer, but as a biologist I feel the same, and I totally understand your concers about the positive version of the idiom as well.

    Thanks for writing.


  8. If I times something by 0.5 I make it smaller, even though it's a multiplication. Something being 4 times smaller than X is not incorrect if you're looking at it from a mathematical point of view. I don't believe the grammatical, or logical, point of view overrides that. Saying that something is 1/4 the size of x is inherently more informative, certainly.

    What is interesting is how language evolves over time to become less precise, I believe. Here in the UK we have some terrible problems understanding youngsters who are growing up employing a language called 'texting'. When seen in its written form it makes me want to throttle someone!

    Here's an example.

    "c u 2mr coz no cred cnt rng bk"

    I think we stand in the face of an unstoppable tide. More's the pity. However, language is fluid and it will continue to change and adapt. Those things we find irksome will become acceptable eventually. They will then become canon.

    Even Canute couldn't stop the tide!