Five times less

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Fri May 22 17:24:22 UTC 2009

On May 22, 2009, at 8:21 AM, Bill Palmer wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Bill Palmer <w_a_palmer at BELLSOUTH.NET>
> Subject:      Re: Five times less
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Very helpful & interesting reading, Arnold, and thanx. I have a
> corollary.
> On the local AM radio station, I was informed that the murder rate
> in North
> Carolina had "declined by over 100%".  One can muddle thru a "five
> times
> less" construction and figure out what was meant, but how is it
> possible to
> reduce something by more than 100%?

squirreled away for eventual attention is this message i got last
august from a Language Log reader:

   I just wanted to share a favorite quote of mine which I heard on
NPR during a discussion of the Russian economy, back when its currency
was in a free-fall. The reporter announced in all seriousness that the
currency had lost value "by 300% in the past month". I pictured it
losing 100% of its value. Okay, now it is worthless. I started to
imagine negative currency value. What would it mean to have a currency
at -200% value? Or do they pay you?


i think i've seen others of this sort.  i haven't done anything about
them because i don't really know what the speakers/writers were trying
the convey; maybe asking them would shed some light (but maybe not).

sometimes people who send me these things just dismiss the responsible
people as "innumerate".  but that treats such things solely as
mathematical expressions, whereas they are clearly supposed to be
ordinary english with some things from the mathematical lexicon in
them.  they don't follow the rules of "mathematical english", but we
should give the responsible people some credit for having a system,
even if it's not the system mathematicians use.  the question is what
this system is.

it's much like non-standard variants that don't involve mathematical
material.  many people are inclined to just dismiss them as
"mistakes", but linguists always work from the hypothesis that they
have some system, just not the standard system, and the research
question is to find out what this system is.


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