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The Word

Do the math

Why 'three times less' isn't three times worse

ACCORDING TO A wire report in the Globe last month, a proposed geothermal power plant in New Hampshire "would emit 35 times less carbon dioxide per kilowatt" than traditional coal-fueled plants.

But for Ed Farrell of Holyoke, that "35 times less" was not good news. "This makes no sense," he e-mailed, arguing that times implies multiplication and therefore can't result in shrinkage. "Perhaps one thirty-fifth (that is, dividing by 35) would have been closer to the mark?"

No doubt 1/35th is what the writer intended (and what most readers understood). But times less has tradition, if not logic, on its side; it was idiomatic English for at least two centuries before anyone claimed it was confusing, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

Jonathan Swift, for instance, used it in 1711, writing "I am resolved to drink ten times less than before." It wasn't till the 20th century that language commentators - not mathematicians - came up with the notion that "three times closer" and "100 times slower" were illogical and confusing.

It's those commentators who are confused, say the Merriam-Webster editors. "Times has now been used in such constructions for about 300 years, and there is no evidence to suggest that it has ever been misunderstood."

They also dismiss the related idea, often invoked in newsrooms, that "five times more" isn't synonymous with "five times as much," but really means "six times as much": "It is, in fact, possible to misunderstand times more in this way, but it takes a good deal of effort."

I've heard people argue that threefold and its brothers are ambiguous, too, but I doubt it. The Oxford English Dictionary says threefold has meant "three times as much" since it was an Old English word; it seems perverse to keep looking for ways to make it mysterious.

This is not to say that journalists shouldn't be checking their math. When a fashion reporter says a designer's new pieces cost "300 percent less than her higher-priced line," it really is nonsense. To say that something "doubled the risk of death" means little unless you know if the increase was from 1 percent to 2 percent or from 35 percent to 70 percent.

As for "35 times less," it could be clearer, but I don't think the problem is the "times less" locution; rather, it's the awkwardness of the fraction 1/35. Most readers, I suspect, would have been more comfortable with a percentage: The new technology "would emit less than 3 percent" of the coal plant's carbon dioxide.

But let's not sweat 10 times less, five times more, or a threefold increase. Unless we're getting dumber by the decade, there's no reason we should boggle at these old familiar usages.

. . .

COME ON, COS: Newspaper slotman and style maven Bill Walsh has a beef with Bill Cosby. "So Much for That Ed.D.," he headlines his blog post on the title of Cosby's new book, "Come On People." Apparently the author, despite his graduate degree, "never learned about the comma of direct address," Walsh writes (at; it really should be "Come On, People."

Such minor goofs, some of them mistakes and others misguided design choices, are common enough in titles. Remember "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and its missing hyphen? The short-lived sitcom "'Til Death," with its reversed apostrophe? And then there was "Two Weeks Notice," the title that spurred punctuation stickler Lynne Truss to tote a felt-tip marker around town, correcting posters wherever she could.

Editors often fix these little glitches when the titles appear in print, either to follow "house style" or because alternative versions are circulating, so when I saw Cosby's title in The New York Times last week, it had the requisite comma. For me, there was a different puzzle, one embedded in a Cosby witticism quoted by columnist Bob Herbert: "'A word to the wise ain't necessary,' Mr. Cosby likes to say. 'It's the stupid ones who need the advice."'

Cosby is riffing, of course, on "A word to the wise is sufficient," itself a translation of the Latin "verbum sapienti sat est." When the maxim was better known, it was often shortened to verb. sap. or verb. sat. In English, too, it often appears in truncated form: "a word to the wise," introducing a bit of advice, implies that the smart listener will take heed.

But here's what's weird: Cosby phrases his joke as if he were contradicting the original saying, when in fact he's echoing it. "A word to the wise" doesn't mean "ignore the dopes." It means "a hint is enough for a smart person; it's the stupid ones who need it spelled out."

As sins against literacy go, these are surely small ones. But given his shape-up message, you'd think Cosby might be minding his maxims and tracking his commas more carefully.

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