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I've heard more and more people saying "A is N times less than B" in many contexts. I even saw in a news journal (forgot whether it was Time or Newsweek), "The object was 3 times closer than the moon".

I cannot bring my self to say this. It just seems wrong. If "2 times closer" or "5 times slower" mans "half as fast" or "a fifth as fast", then why not just say that? Besides to me it seems logically that "A is 5 times less than B" ought to mean "A = B - 5*A".

I also speak French, and the French say this all the time (in French and in English).

QUESTION. Has this horrible formulation become common place, and we just need to accept it and start using it? Or is it still regarded as ambiguous and should be avoided in scientific writing?

(this question is related to Meaning of “x is 35 times less than y" but it different because it asks a different question.)

marked as duplicate by WS2, JonMark Perry, jimm101, J. Taylor, Skooba Aug 20 '18 at 13:28

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • You linked to the other question which already seems to answer this issue. For example I notice most marketing material tends to say "half off" or "10% off" and so on for discounts, which means that they seem to already express it in a clear way by your example. Could you imagine a grocer saying "today: milk is 3 times cheaper?" What would he mean? If he meant that milk is being sold for 1/3 of the normal price today, I think he would just say that. Of course, there may be people here and there who phrase things strangely or explain things in an unclear way, but that is hardly surprising. – Brandin Aug 16 '18 at 8:42
  • How do you say ship A was four times bigger than ship B? "Ship A was 400% the size of ship A? – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 8:53
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    Also how does A = B - 5*A correspond to A is 5 times less than B? Why would you multply A by 5? If A is x times less than B, multiplying A by x makes no sense, rather you'd multiply B by x and subtract from B to get A. Or something like that. – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 9:06
  • @Zebrafish:  Can you flesh out your comment?  For example, if Barney weighs 400 pounds, and Andrew weighs 5 times less than Barney, would you compute 400×5=2000?  And then what?  400−2000, yielding a negative number? – Scott Aug 20 '18 at 4:13
  • Jim Newton: The “N times less” formulation may have become popular because 142% of people don’t understand fractions.     :-)    ⁠ – Scott Aug 20 '18 at 4:13

To attempt to answer the question about frequency, rather than the meaning, I checked on Google ngrams for

times fewer than,times less than

And, because "times few than" was down in the noise, I checked that by itself

It looks like the usage of both has been pretty variable in the past. "Times fewer than" is rare but has had a bit of a renaissance in the last few decades. But it was more popular in the past.

There is thing called the "recency illusion" where people think that forms of language they dislike are being used more by "people today". (I seem to remember reading about a cuneiform book of grammar with an introduction saying that the author had written it because "people today no longer know how to use our language properly").

p.s. the meaning of "N times less than" is not intuitive to me, so I would never use it.

  • Really? If I said the market value today is 5 times less than it was last year, you wouldn't find that intuitive? I'd just intuitively think it was one fifth the price, divide by 5. I really don't see any other common way of understanding that. Of course as a commenter mentioned, you could take the price of last year, multiply it by five, and then subtract it from last year's price to get the current price. You'd then have ((last year's price - (last year's price x 5)), essentially 100% - 500%, ending up with a negative number. I admit it sounds a little strange, but totally intuitive to me. – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 10:04
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    @Zebrafish I would probably understand it, but only because I couldn't imagine what else it could mean. I wouldn't be sure of the meaning because it sounds weird and confusing to me (for all the reasons given in the other comments). – user184130 Aug 16 '18 at 10:08
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    Where I get a little cautious is with something like "Item A is 5 times bigger than Item B." Then, although I naturally think of Item A being 500% the size of Item B, I still entertain the possibility that it's 600% bigger. But saying "Item A is one time bigger than Item B" is something I've never heard. I guess that would mean Item A is 200% the size of Item B. Then there's "Item A is 5 times as big as Item B". Instead of saying "bigger than", you say "as big as", and then I get confused. – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 10:09
  • @Zebrafish How odd! "5 times bigger" is absolutely unambiguous to me. – user184130 Aug 16 '18 at 10:12
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    @JimNewton Same here. Only I've never heard the term "one time bigger", I'm pretty sure. 1 time bigger I couldn't see being interpreted in any other way. 2 times bigger on the other hand to me intuitively means 200% the size. But following on from 1 time bigger being 200% the size, then 2 times bigger should be 300% the size. That's why I made the comment that if Item A is 5 times bigger than Item B, I'd intuitively think it's 500% the size. But because of what you pointed out, the one time bigger example, I'd maybe hesitate between 500% and 600% the size. – Zebrafish Aug 20 '18 at 6:16

First, "A is 5 times less than B" does not mean "A = B - 5*A". That is never what a native speaker would think. "Times" is always multiplicative, so the amount of "less" is 5 times greater. "Less" can have a subtractive meaning, but it's much less common than being used as just a word of comparison (like "more"). As such, the multiplicative "times" is a much stronger meaning, and so when used together, "less" is never subtractive.

For example, "A is 10% less than B" means you should subtract 10% of B. If you say, "A is 10 times less than B," it means A is one tenth B. The "times" takes priority. Though for general comparisons, such as "A is less expensive than B", it also is just a simple comparison, not subtractive (and these are more common).

In English, saying something like "A is one fifth as fast as B" is more awkward than saying "A is five times slower than B." They are both correct, and both might be used for the same situation. Thinking in whole numbers is faster and more convenient, however, and is good for emphasizing the size of the difference.

So no, this is not a horrible formation. This is a very usual and easily understood part of English. In science, it's more common to use "A has one fifth the speed of B" for maximum clarity, but what is best-practice in science, and what is proper English are not the same. (Best-practices are always more restrictive than what is correct in the language as a whole.)

  • So are you arguing that "A is 5 times less than B" means "A = B/5"? I would not agree with you that it is "easily understood". "Times slower than, times less than, or times fewer than are in my view meaningless formulations - and their use should be discouraged, by among others, maths teachers. It is extremely seldom that I downvote an answer (or a question) but on this occasion I am moved to do so. – WS2 Aug 16 '18 at 9:12
  • @WS2 Drazex has already made the point that in sciences and math the less so called ambiguous version is used. And I agree it should be maintained that way. But from my experience people have no trouble understanding Bus A is 5 times smaller than Bus B. What are the other possible conclusions to draw other than Bus A is one fifth the size of Bus B? – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 9:18
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    Yes, "A is 5 times less than B" is "A = B/5". English is not a fundamentally mathematical thing. Comparisons can be made in any arbitrary direction. "Canada is colder than Mexico." is just as valid a statement as "Morocco is hotter than Norway." This is the exact same concept, just without a number. Therefore you can use the same sorts of multipliers. "Three times shorter" is the same as "Three times less tall" is the same as "one third as tall", though the first or third are much more natural than the middle choice. – Drazex Aug 16 '18 at 9:18
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    @WS2 The only "near" ambiguity I can see is when you say Bus A is 4 times bigger than Bus B. Either Bus A is 400% the size of Bus B, or Bus A is 500% the size of Bus B. The second conclusion would only make sense if "Bus A is one time bigger than Bus B" would be comprehensible to anyone, then Bus A might be 200% the size of Bus B. – Zebrafish Aug 16 '18 at 9:23
  • @Drazex I'm not convinced that people who use the formulation are necessarily understanding it in that way. What is wrong is the use of the word "times" - because we are not considering multiplication but division. So a better expression would be "Bus A is five divisors smaller than bus B". Maths teachers would do the world a favour by popularising such an idiom. – WS2 Aug 16 '18 at 9:33

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