English in Math, part 1:

Recently, several media outlets noted that the US women’s soccer team was subjected to wage discrimination, and that “the World Cup winners were paid four times less than their male counterparts last year.” One can argue the numbers, but there is a clear disparity.

What struck me, though, was the phrase “four times less”, which to my ears, seemed incorrect. I asked my spouse, who is a teacher of English as a New Language (ENL), the new designation for what had been traditionally referred to as English as a Second Language (ESL), in part because those learners may be taking on English as a third language, or fourth, or more. She agreed it “sounded wrong.”

We both would have said the men made four times as much, or the women made a quarter (or a fourth) as much. Professor Milo Schield, from the Department of Business, Accounting and MIS at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN, would agree with us. In COMMON ERRORS IN FORMING ARITHMETIC COMPARISONS, he writes of Using ‘times less’ as an inverted form of ‘times as much’:

Since six is three times as much as two, it is tempting to say that two is three times less than six. Two is definitely less than six and their ratio is definitely that of three to one. But if two were three times less than six, then six should be three times more than two. Recall that six is three times as much as two – two times more than two. ‘Times less than’ is an inverted form of ‘times more than’ – not ‘times as much’. This error is more common in speech than in writing. This error is a variation on… Confusing ‘times as much’ with ‘times more than’.

Got that? Of COURSE you do.

But after reading this language log, and this observation, I’m willing to cede that, while my thought process is technically correct, I may be willing to give this one a pass. I KNOW what they mean, and explaining the “error” is far too exhausting.

##### Percentage increase

On the other hand (English in Math, part 2):

Our tax accountant gave us an interesting tidbit, citing our cash charitable contributions as 320% higher than others who earn the same amount and noncash contributions as 40% lower. So, I surmised that if the AVERAGE person gave \$100, we would have given \$420. Ah, but that’s not what he meant. We have given \$320 versus \$100. That is 220% higher than OR 320% of the average.

Quoting the professor:

The essential feature is the difference is between ‘as much as’ and ‘more than.’ ‘As much as’ indicates a ratio; ‘more than’ indicates a difference. ‘More than’ means ‘added onto the base’. This essential difference is ignored by those who say that ‘times’ is dominant so that ‘three times as much’ is really the same as ‘three times more than.’

I saw this same error on The Daughter’s First in Math, where there was a 700% increase shown, but the choices were increases of 100%, 200%, 400% and 800%. We picked the 800%, since it was the closest, and it registered as correct.

This all goes to show that I can yield in my pedantry, but only so far.

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