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”:

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Braving the gauntlet

(Originally published in the Boston Sunday Globe, March 28, 2004)  

"MARTHA STEWART may still have to run another legal gauntlet," predicted a story in this section two weeks ago, prompting a usage dissent from reader Richard Sachs of Chelmsford: Shouldn't that be a legal gantlet? he wondered. Dan Tanner of Westborough had already issued his challenge: Run the gauntlet, he e-mailed, "is getting past Globe editors. A gauntlet is a glove. A gantlet is what one might run."

The Globe stylebook sides with the plaintiffs: "A gantlet is a military punishment in which the offender ran between two rows of men who struck him . . . A gauntlet is a medieval glove worn by knights in armor." Simple enough, but there's a catch: Most of the world disagrees.

The problem is not with gauntlet, the glove, a straightforward borrowing from French; a gauntlet may be flung down or picked up, but it's never confused with a gantlet. No, it's gantlet whose checkered past makes it hard to defend with a pure prescriptive passion, for gantlet was compromised from the beginning. On its way from Sweden to England, where it first shows up in print in 1636, it was transformed from gattlopp ("lane-course") to gantelope or gantlope.

A decade later, the Oxford English Dictionary records, the new word had already acquired a folk etymology: An imaginative commentator suggested that it derived from "Ghent Lope," a punishment "invented at Ghent . . . and therefore so called." This fanciful notion didn't catch on, though, and gantlope, under pressure from the similar gauntlet, soon gave way. Gauntlet has meant both punishment and glove since at least 1676.

In the ensuing centuries, Britons seem not to have lost any sleep over the potential confusion. In the colonies, however, some worthy watchdog must have decided we could do better, and in the 19th century gantlet was temporarily revived as the word for the ordeal. It didn't last, though -- Clint Eastwood's 1977 movie "The Gauntlet" was about the purists' gantlet. And today, editors who like gantlet have to dig deep for lexicographical support. Most dictionaries call gantlet a variant of the standard, dominant gauntlet.

Newspapers beyond US borders also use gauntlet almost exclusively -- it's the spelling of choice in 99 percent of variations on the phrase run the gauntlet. And yet, US editors haven't knuckled under. In newspapers here, the gantlet and the gauntlet now run neck and neck* -- not a bad showing for the gantlet devotees, who must be a smallish band.

Why do they make the effort, when the rest of the English-writing world does fine without gantlet? Probably because every usage nut treasures a slightly different set of niceties. Bryan Garner (shockingly!) accepts bicep as a singular, though it should be biceps. If you keep the Latin singular, he notes, you're stuck with bicepses or bicipites for plurals -- a high price for accuracy. And yet, in his Modern American Usage, Garner argues for gantlet, distinguishes between masterly and masterful, and wants to keep both insure and ensure, though one spelling would suffice.

Similarly, syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick is ferocious on the difference between each other and one another, but indifferent to the widely censured comprised of (it should be composed) and unruffled by for free. Theodore Bernstein opposed the verb chair but was willing to give up on the farther/further (one literal, one figurative) distinction. And US journalists, it seems, have adopted gantlet as a shibboleth, a password that signals membership in a select linguistic community. It may not be the best place to make a stand, given gantlet's lack of adherents and its long-since-corrupted form. But for some usage obsessives, there's no cause like a hopeless cause.

*2016 note: The data about newspaper usage comes from Nexis searches.