. . . times lower than . . .

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Sep 4 14:16:55 UTC 2007

At 9/4/2007 09:56 AM, Laurence Urdang wrote:
> From a letter in today's Daily Telegraph:
>   ". . . the murder rate in London is five times lower than some
> cities in the United States . . ."
>   I am not interested in the source or in the sense but in this
> typical use of times that has sprung up in the past couple of
> decades (according to my observation) with the meaning 'one nth':
> in the present instance, in my dialect (!) I should have said, ". .
> . is one fifth (of) that in some cities."
>   I cannot conceive how or why times, which is an indication of
> multiplication, not division, has come to mean its opposite.
>   Am I the only English speaker on earth who has noticed this or is
> bothered by it?  I have never seen another comment on it.

I have noticed it and am somewhat bothered by it, but I do understand
it.  And it does not seem incorrect mathematically -- that is, given
one of the two numbers I can compute the other confidently.

>   A typical context would be, "The average temperature at the
> Antarctic is five times lower than [that] at the Arctic."  [Forget
> about the truth of the statement, for grammar and truth are unrelated.]

Apart from truth, I don't think one can say this about the customary
(Fahrenheit, Centigrade) temperature scales -- they do not have the
mathematical property (whose name I've forgotten) that allows ratios
to be computed.  One can apply ratios to the Kelvin scale, with its
zero at absolute zero.

>   In other words, instead of using the appropriate fraction or
> percentage indicated, 'one quarter of' becomes "four times lower
> than," 'one third of' becomes "three times less than," etc.


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