Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writing, logic and numbers (1)

Pay close attention to logic when writing about numbers, especially when comparing numbers. For example, keep in mind the difference between the phrase as much as and the phrase more than.


Imagine two boxes (A and B), full of office supplies. Imagine that you and I know that A weighs 12 pounds. If I say to you, “B weighs as much as A,” or “B is as heavy as A,” I mean B weighs 12 pounds.

If I say, “B weighs four times as much as A,” or “B is four times as heavy as A,” I mean B weighs 48 pounds. That is, B is equivalent to four A’s. (4A = 4x12 pounds = 48 pounds)

But if I say “B weighs four times more than A,” or “B is four times heavier than A,” I mean B weighs not 48 pounds, but 60 pounds. In other words, I mean that B is equivalent to four A’s plus A. (4A + A = 4x12 pounds + 12 pounds = 60 pounds).

Most people learn as much as, more than and other basic concepts of arithmetic in elementary school or even before elementary school. One learning method involves the manipulation of Cuisenaire rods (shown in picture above).

For example, if a pupil lays down three white rods in a line, and then one white rod and one red rod in a line parallel to the first line, and then one light-green rod parallel to the other two lines, he can easily perceive that 3 is 3 times as much as 1, and 2 times more than 1.

Journalists and PR people

Unfortunately, most journalists and PR people did not learn these concepts (or have forgotten them). They confuse as much as and more than. For example, a press release issued last Thursday begins with this headline:

“MEPs cost taxpayers five times more than UK MPs”

The second paragraph of the text contains the numbers behind the headline:

“Open Europe’s comparison finds that the European Parliament costs taxpayers a staggering £1.8 million for each MEP per year. This is in contrast to the House of Commons, which costs taxpayers £364,000 for each member….”

Now, £1.8 million divided by £364,000 is approximately 5. But this means five times as much as, not “five times more than.”

An article in the Mail Online gets the concepts right:

“[A study concluded that] women talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day – 13,000 more than the average man.”

If you subtract 13,000 from 20,000, you get 7,000 (the men’s rate); 20,000 is almost three times 7,000.

The Takeaway: When writing about numbers, mind your logic. For example, remember that as much as and more than are not interchangeable. Look at the numbers you are comparing and then select the correct phrase to express the comparison.

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