Five times less

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sat May 23 16:17:11 UTC 2009

On May 22, 2009, at 6:51 AM, David A. Daniel wrote:

> (in response to Bill Palmer's:
   In a letter to the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer today, a
> complains that her salary is "five times less" than that of the city
> manager.  So how does one perform that calculation? )

> It means that if the city manager makes 100, she makes 20. 100
> divided by 5.
> If she had said "the city manager makes 5 times as much as I do",
> there
> would be no confusion, I think. I of course have no idea if that is
> in fact
> the situation with her salary...

yes, the reasoning would be: if the city manager makes 5 times more
than i do (meaning, as in very common usage, 5 times as much as I do),
then i make 5 times less than ('a fifth as much as') the city manager.
(note: this is verbal reasoning -- it's a verbal analogy -- not
mathematical reasoning.)

MWDEU has a nice discussion of both "times less" (and similar cases of
smaller compared to greater) and "times more" 'times as much as' (and
similar cases), but it doesn't connect the two phenomena, as i just
did (and it discusses "times less" before "times more").

for my suggestion to fly, "times more" and its kin must have come
before "times less" and its kin.  i don't have entirely solid evidence
on the matter, though the OED has a large number of "times more"
citations from the 16th and 17th centuries (with both numerical and
figurative senses, the latter in "ten times more puzzl'd" (Milton),
for instance), but the first citation i've seen (in MWDEU, from the
OED) for "times less" is from 1711 ("to drink ten times less than
before", from Swift).  so it looks like "times more" has been around
for about 500 years, "times less" for about 300.

in any case, both "times more" and "times less" have a long history
and are reasonably frequent ("times more" is very frequent indeed),
including use by serious writers and speakers.  though the
mathematically inclined are likely to notice them (especially "times
less") and object to them -- while other people have no trouble with
them -- they should both be judged standard.  (which doesn't mean that
the mathematically inclined are obliged to use them, but only that
they shouldn't insist on refusing to understand what other people mean
by them).

i see that the Language Loggers use "times more" quite a lot and
"times less/fewer" on occasion.  well, we're often comparing
frequencies of various things (as in critiques of reports about the
number of words used per day by women vs. men). here's a quote from
Mark Liberman with "times more" three times:

   About ten years ago, a publisher's representative told me that
introductory linguistics courses in the U.S. enroll 50,000 students
per year, while introductory psychology courses enroll about
1,500,000, or 30 times more. The current number of Google hits for
"linguistics department" is 60,900, while "psychology department" has
1,010,000, or 14 times more. The Linguistic Society of America has
about 4,000 members, while the American Psychological Association has
more than 150,000 members, or about 38 times more.

("as many" would also be possible, but i don't see a problem with

and another from Mark, with both "times more" and "times fewer", in

  So maybe it's two times more people and two times fewer bits per

(again there are other possibilities: "two times more people and half
as many bits per second" or "two times/twice as many people and half
as many bits per second".)

"times more" and "times less" have two things going for them: a little
bit of brevity and a kind of explicitness.

on brevity : in many cases, the "times more" construction saves one
word, the "times less" construction one or two:

   X times as much/many Y as  [Y a noun]  vs.
   X times more Y than

   a/one Xth as much/many Y as  vs.
   X times less/fewer Y than

[the adjective/adverb cases introduce further complexities, which I
won't go into here.]

on explicitness: "more" and "less" make the direction of comparison
lexically explicit.

these are small advantages, to be sure.


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