I’m not sure of whether this is grammatically correct, although I've encountered the same expression many times before.

Most Google searches show it produces 35 times less carbon than the report suggested.

Does 35 times less have a precise meaning in this context, or is it ambiguous here? Does either of these two possibities apply?

  1. the original amount minus 35 times the original amount (35 times less than 100 units would be −3400 units)

  2. ¹⁄₃₅ of the original amount (35 times less than 100 units would be 2 ⁶⁄₇ units)

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    @FumbleFingers I'm asking whether "thirty-five times less than 35" means "thirty-five divided by 35", or whether it means something else entirely. Why is that "not a real question"? – Anderson Green Nov 14 '12 at 22:12
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    @FumbleFingers I think the statement "x = (35 times less than y)" could either mean "x = y/35" or "x = (35 times) minus y", or even "x = 35 multiplied by less than y". – Anderson Green Nov 14 '12 at 22:21
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    Let's cut to the chase. One just can't produce a negative quantity of carbon. Or a negative quantity of anything, for that matter. That is no longer production, that's consumption. So that interpretation simply is not an option. Not in terms of syntax, semantics, maths, logic, or [noun of your choice here]. So I am closing the question as rhetorical. If you can produce an example in which your suggested ambiguity actually exists, people can vote to reopen. Thank you. – RegDwigнt Nov 14 '12 at 22:57
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    @RegDwighт I still don’t know why things can be half/twice as much/big/long/tall/heavy/old/fast/smart as something else, and yet they cannot be half/twice as little/small/short/light/young/slow/stupid as anything at all. There’s something funny here. – tchrist Nov 15 '12 at 4:33
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    @AndersonGreen I don't think the closing was justified, and it didn't need a diamond mod closure. – Andrew Grimm Nov 15 '12 at 7:54

There is nothing wrong with the grammar of the statement, but it does leave what actual amount is meant open to interpretation, and therefore it drifts toward meaninglessness.

The first question is "35 times less than what?" If the report suggested that the carbon produced was 35 grams, should we infer that the search produced 1 gram? If so, why not phrase it as "1/35th as much carbon as the report suggested"? That is certainly clearer.

Obviously, times is a multiplier, not a divisor, so it will never be used comfortably in the latter capacity. Even when talking about discounts, a 35% discount is 35 times greater than a 1% discount.

This little ambiguity is present in all the expressions of reduction: slower, shorter, smaller, and so on. It is far better to say something is half as fast than twice as slow.

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    Actually, it seems quite obvious to me that if A is 35x “less” than B, then B is 35x of A. So we’re talking about ¹⁄₃₅ᵗʰ. I can’t imagine it meaning anything else. – tchrist Nov 15 '12 at 0:03
  • @tchrist Your comment's exactly right. This is a garden path problem. You can say "B is 35 times more than A". Then, symmetrical thinking (analogy) can lead you to say "A is 35 times less than B". The way you got there is understandable, but the result is unclear. It would be more clear to say "A is 35 times smaller than B". – MetaEd Nov 15 '12 at 4:27
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    @MετάEd Actually, I think there is a problem with that. Something can be half/twice as big/long/tall/heavy/old/fast/smart, but it cannot be half/twice as small/short/light/young/slow/stupid. See the problem? It’s actually rather interesting. – tchrist Nov 15 '12 at 4:30
  • I'd argue with you about small, short, light, slow, and stupid. I might concede young, and even then I can't explain why. – MetaEd Nov 15 '12 at 4:34
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    Mostly dead is slightly alive. —Miracle Max – MetaEd Nov 15 '12 at 4:45

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