Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Six times more ambiguous

I wonder how many people had to read this correction twice, as I did:
A driver who texts while driving is six times as likely to be involved in a crash as a driver who doesn't text. A Business News article Saturday about driver-monitoring systems incorrectly said that a driver who texts is six times more likely to be involved in a crash than one who doesn’t. 
When I got it — the Wall Street Journal had written “six times more likely,” and now was “correcting” the wording to “six times as likely” — I knew it was meant for a small band of sticklers. These are the people who claim that “six times as likely” means “multiplied by six,” but “six times more likely” really — that is, properly, mathematically — means “multiplied by seven”: It’s the original amount plus six more servings. 

But I don’t buy it. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “It is possible to misunderstand times more in this way, but it takes a good deal of effort.” In real life, nobody uses “six times more” to mean “seven times as much” (and if they did, how would a reader know it, without the numbers?). MWDEU concludes:
The fact is that “five times more” and “five times as much” are idiomatic phrases which have — and are understood to have — exactly the same meaning. The “ambiguity” of times more is imaginary.
The same argument is aimed at “six times less” to mean one-sixth — which, unlike “times more,” often does trigger my editorial antennae. I’d consider changing it in copy, if it were at all distracting. But I stopped worrying about it once I noticed that Mark Liberman of Language Log uses it unapologetically, even in contexts where he’s wrangling complicated statistics. If it’s OK with him, it’s OK with me.

Further reading:

Bill Walsh disagrees, firmly:

Arnold Zwicky treats “times more” and “times less” in a post on the Recency Illusion:

Eugene Volokh notes that Newton, Herschel, Darwin, and Robert Boyle used “times less”:


John Cowan said...

I take the correction to be from "driver who texts" to "driver who texts while driving". Many people both drive and text, but the story is about those who do both at the same time.

Bryan White said...

@John Cowan: My guess would be that they were simply shortening the original passage when they alluded to it there at the end. It's quite possible, and I believe even probable, that the original also stipulated "while driving" as well, but the writer of the correction might have felt that including it there would have seemed stilted, awkward, and distracting from the point they were making.

If that had been the focus of the correction, I think they would have made that clear in the second sentence. Perhaps something like:

"A Business News article Saturday about driver-monitoring systems mentioned this statistic without stipulating that it concerned drivers who texted while driving."

And honestly, if someone felt that it wasn't clear that the drivers who text were driving, given that texting while driving is a well known issue and given that the context is CRASH STATSITICS, I think it would be an even more pedantic complaint than the one Jan addresses.

I would pretty much bet the house that it's the "more" and "as" issue.

Bryan White said...

In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that "drivers who text while driving" is a redundant.

Unless you're talking about someone who drives for a living or who identifies primarily as a driver, such as a taxi driver or a race car driver, then "driver" is typically going to refer to someone in the act of driving. You and I may drive, but no one is going to refer to us as "drivers" when we're home in bed or sitting on the couch eating cookies. It's not a significant enough part of our identity for anyone to refer to us as "drivers" unless they're talking about us driving in the same statement. That doesn't really need to be stipulated explicitly. You're never, ever, ever going to see an article saying, "A recent study reveals that 99% of drivers like to sing in the shower." Never going to happen. When an article says "drivers" it's clear that we're dealing with people behind the wheel, not just people who happen to have driver's licenses in their wallets while they stroll around the zoo or sit in a restaurant eating soup.

Unknown said...

I read the correction the way John Cowan did; it was meant to clear up that simply being someone who texts is not what increases your chance of having an accident. You have to do it while you're driving. I have never seen a correction for a purely grammatical mistake.

Unknown said...

Hear hear, Jan.