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I see the word 'increase' used a lot in science writing to describe a greater average value in one group compared to another. For example:

There was an increase in wealth among women compared to men

to simply mean women were wealthier.

But this feels wrong to me and every definition of 'increase' I have seen refers to a change over time. On the other hand I wouldn't be as unhappy with:

wealth increased with years of completed education

to mean that those with more education were wealthier, even though this is also a simple cross-sectional comparison. So my question is whether either or both of these uses is appropriate (and why or why not), in particular whether I should continue to flag them as incorrect in papers I review.

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2 Answers 2

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The OP has two intuitions:

(1) To say that something increases implies that it changes over time.

(2) It is OK to say 'y increases with x', when looking at x and y of different entities at one, given moment, so that no change in time is involved. (For example, 'wealth increased with years of completed education' can be a way of saying that the people who were better educated at the relevant time were also wealthier at that same time, without making any comparison to how they were earlier.)

Each of these intuitions is quite plausible, and yet, they seem to contradict each other. Is there a way to reconcile them?

There is. While in the cases described in (2) we are looking only at a 'snapshot', taken at one moment, and there is therefore no change over time in the subject matter, time is still involved in a way. These cases typically involve something that can be represented on a graph, and our reading of that graph takes place in time. Our eyes move from left to right, and, as they do that, we are looking at increasing x. In a particular case, we may notice that, as we do that, y is also increasing and express that by saying 'y increases with x'.

Of course, this wording can be used even when no actual graph is in front us, in so far as we are aware that the subject matter could be represented on a graph that would be read that way.

However, if nothing like that is the case, as in the OP's example of somebody's wanting to say simply that women are currently wealthier than men, increase is a wrong word to use. One can make sense of the sentence 'There was an increase in wealth among women compared to men' only if one takes the author to be making an implied comparison with their wealth in the past, in which case the increase in question would be an increase over time.

The account given here for increase also applies to change itself and similar words.

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A temporal relation is not necessary; if you have a graph that charts wage on the Y axis and education level on the X axis, you can absolutely say "wage increases with education level"; another graph might show that "wage decreases as distance from the city increases" or any other number of non-temporal relations.

However, the key that I see here is that there has to be a range involved; that is, more than just 2 or 3 options. (This is reflected in Merriam-Webster's definition of "increase": to become progressively greater (as in size, amount, number, or intensity) [emphasis added]

So it doesn't really work when your options are limited to "man"/"woman". There I would probably go with something like "There was greater wealth among women compared to men."

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  • Yes. An increase is stated with respect to something. That something does not need to be time. Where this moves toward linguistic theory or philosophy is whether that something is always implicitly using temporal change as an analogy. The seems beyond OP's question, but may be setting off alarms of "aren't these just really temporal relationships anyway?"
    – jimm101
    Feb 15, 2023 at 16:28

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