Suppose I have some measurement with interferometer number 1, let's call the result A, and another measurement with interferometer number 2, let's call that one B. Suppose that always A>B (in some known, fixed coordinate system and units; the numbers can be negative). What the best way to describe this in words?

  1. Interferometer #1 measures a larger distance than #2.
  2. Interferometer #1 measures a higher distance than #2.
  3. Interferometer #1 measures a bigger distance than #2.
  4. Interferometer #1 measures more than #2.
  5. Interferometer #1 measures less negative than #2.
  6. Interferometer #1 measures a more positive number than #2.
  7. Interferometer #1 measures a less negative number than #2.

I would like to use "a larger distance" but I find that unclear when comparing A=-5 with B=-6.

  • 1
    Is the fact that the numbers are measured with interferometers significant? Or are you asking a general question that applies to any measurement made with any sort of (distance-)measuring device? – David Z Feb 20 '12 at 6:39
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    The question(v2) seems to be basically a language question about how to read $x<y$ aloud in English for various signs of the two real numbers $x$ and $y$. It contains no physics. – Qmechanic Feb 20 '12 at 21:37
  • @Qmechanic: it doesn't contain physics, but I want to use this in physics literature, so this stackexchange site seemed most appropriate. I guess I'm the only one wondering about this question here... – Frank Meulenaar Feb 22 '12 at 17:33
  • Well, just because you want to use this in physics literature doesn't mean it's necessarily appropriate here. Language questions that are very specialized to physics may be okay on this site, but for something like this, we do have an English Language & Usage site that might be better placed to offer answers. I'll check with the moderators over there and see if they would like to take it. – David Z Feb 22 '12 at 20:53

I don't think any of the seven alternatives sound correct.

First off, when dealing with distances, the comparators "longer" or "greater" work better than "larger," "higher," or "bigger." Larger would imply some kind of area or volume; higher implies height or altitude, and bigger is simply too vague, and doesn't sound sufficiently scientific.

However, all seven alternatives seem to imply that the measuring device #1 is capable of measuring a longer distance than measuring device #2, rather than comparing the two measurements themselves.

When A and B are both positive, simply say, "Measurement A is greater than Measurement B," or, "The measurement taken from Interferometer #1 was greater than the measurement taken from Interferometer #2."

When A and B are both negative, use, "Measurement B is less than Measurement A," or, "The measurement taken from Interferometer #2 was less than the measurement taken from Interferometer #1."

Moreover, this assumes that the magnitude is not as important as the real value, which isn't always the case in physics. One might need to say, "The magnitude of Measaurement B was greater than the magnitude of Measurement A," in the case where, say, A = 2, and B = -5.

If you're asking if there is a single set of words to use - irrespective of whether the values are positive or negative - I can't think of a good template to use.


In English, a distance is always positive. Positive values can be compared using larger/higher/bigger. because there is a minimum (zero). Your measurements allow negatives, so they shouldn't be described with 'a larger/higher/bigger/greater distance'.

You can still compare values, saying 'less than' or 'greater than'. However, you've set up your sentence so that using less/greater will sound strange: "Thing A measures a value greater than Thing B", the infelicity being from the verb 'measures' which takes an object 'value'/'measurement' (it's perfectly grammatical, and it seems reasonable to try that, it just turns out to have all the unsatisfying ways that you listed).

Because of negative values, I'd suggest using 'X is greater than Y'. For example:

The measurement from interferometer #1 is greater than the measurement from #2.


Interferometer #1's measurement is greater than #2's.

  • IMHO, the reason measures sounds wrong is that it confuses two senses of the word. The galaxy measures 5 light years in each direction, or The gap between us and the galaxy measures 5 lightyears, but not * I measured 5 lightyears to the galaxy. Conversely, This interferometer measures... 'the distance to Galaxy ABC' or 'distances up to 100 light years', but not '5 light years' (unless you have a really really large baseline). Maybe result would be better? – Tim Lymington Feb 23 '12 at 14:22

If they are attempting to measure the same distance then you need to change the verb "measures" to something like "reports" or "records".

If they are attempting to measure different distances then I would be happy with 1 or 3, and "a longer distance" is another alternative. Meanwhile 2, 4 or 6 probably convey the intended meaning but rather less fluently. 5 and 7 raise the issue of negative distances.

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