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James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Mon Aug 11 04:13:52 UTC 2008

>AZ, 8/9/08: Recency:

Yet I've never stopped asking, "Why don't you understand the clear
meaning of what people are saying?"

Points well made, obviously, but when setting an editorial policy,
sometimes "Of course that's what they mean" isn't enough. We're in
the business of providing factual information about medications and
health conditions, and one does well to keep one's expressions not
only legally defensible but also not open to debate. We avoid usages
that are likely to distract some readers because they are subject to
(perhaps unwarranted) hote debate, and we don't use expressions that
are, strictly speaking, mathematically improper (as "X times smaller
than" is) because "everybody can understand that" simply isn't good
enough -- partly because it's often not true, and partly because we
want to make sure what we're saying is unambiguous, defensible, and
not distracting.

To put it another way: Of course I can understand what a person who
says "This is five times smaller than that" almost certainly means.
And any linguist has not only the luxury but the obligation to look
at that and accept it and sort out just _why_ something like that is
clear. But an editor does _not_ have that luxury; editors have to be,
in a sense, professionally thick-headed -- they have to anticipate
what things might be unclear, distracting, or otherwise controversial
to enough readers that they should avoid them. (And, on the other
hand, we have an obligation not to prefer inelegant or otherwise
hard-to-read usages simply because a small set of people think the
more elegant, smoother-reading usages are wrong.)

And there are perfectly suitable, clear and cogent alternative usages
to "X times smaller than." If there weren't, that would put a
different complexion on things. But an editorial policy is not a
guide to going around judging _other people_ correct or incorrect,
right or foolish; it is simply a guide for the content that _we_
produce to ensure that it is the most clear and effective English.
And while "five times smaller than" is in fact a phrase of a type I
have myself used in casual speech, I would be derelict in my duty as
an editor or factual information on important topics (health being
one such, I rather think) if I were not to prefer "80% smaller than"
or "20% the size of" or any of the other available expressions that
will stand up in a math classroom and, for that matter, a court of

Incidentally, lest I be subject to accusations of craven acquiescence
to prescriptivist dogmas, allow me to assure those who are still
reading that our editorial policy equally explicitly allows split
infinitives, sentence-opening conjuctions, sentence-closing
prepositions, etc. We're very pragmatic. We want the text to read
well, smoothly, and clearly. We're not trying to be prissy, just
reliable (which means defensible) and readable (which also means that
it shouldn't drag the reader's attention away from what is being

Nor, by the way, just in case there's any question of it, have I ever
thought that the usage in question was new.

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society -

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