The Wichita Eagle daily newspaper carries a supplement within each Sunday edition, Parade. Parade has little to recommend it being mostly populated by "pop culture" déchets (doesn't that sound classier than garbage?) The one thing that I seek out to read each Sunday is the column Ask Marilyn, by Marilyn vos Savant. While the column raises the standards of Parade, it is usually beneath Ms vos Savant who, years ago was advertised (not by herself) as being the most intelligent person alive at the time. It may have been true, then, and it may still be true for all I know - or care. She gives abundant evidence of, at the very least, being a logical person.
Today's column hit my core. It addresses English usage that has been bugging me for years. Such use started to be seen/heard in the world of advertising; but, over the years, has crept more and more into the popular parlance and even into academic writings. Ach, mein Got! (Bogie: If I'm going to thumb my nose at pop culture, I have to do a bang-up job of it! We'll let Stu tell me that I missed the mark.)
A question had been sent in to Ms vos Savant by Jack Clark in North Carolina.
I have always associated multiplication with addition (more), and division with subtraction (less), so I don't understand current phrases such as "three times less" and "twice as small." Can you explain?
Ms vos Savant replied.
Yes. Those phrases, which make many of us wince when we hear newscasters and commentators use them, are just plain mathematically illiterate! In arithmetic, the term "times" means "instances of," in the way "two times three" means "two instances of three," or six. A person who says "three times less" probably means "one-third as much," and one who says "twice as small" likely means "half as small." In short, they have it backward!
Thank you, Ms vos Savant! I only wish that a kindred type of phrase had been also addressed: a phrase in which one says "five times more" when they actually mean "five times" - or - "four times more".