Verbal Energy

Grammar a thousand times more correct?

Our expression of mathematical comparisons is often illogical, the Monitor's language columnist points out, and it's not too hard to get it right.

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Copyediting should be more than just the careful tending of a menagerie of pet peeves. But an editor who lacks a certain strain of – how shall I say? – detail orientation is probably in the wrong line of work.

A language issue that caught my ear twice over the same weekend recently was the "times more" construction. It came up in a radio story on the much-touted "renaissance" of nuclear power in the United States, even as the situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant has been "upgraded" (can that be the right word?) to the same level as the Chernobyl disaster.

Ah, but the idea is that new nuclear power plants would be much safer. Westinghouse says that the beauty of its new AP1000 reactor is that it is "passively safe." Its safety systems rely on natural phenomena – gravity and evaporation and condensation – rather than on batteries or generators or outside electrical power.

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A Westinghouse official said, "The typical plants in the US are about twice as good as the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] requirement, and the AP1000 is 200 times as good, so 100 times better than the current operating plants."

He got his first comparison right: "about twice as good." And the second, too: "200 times as good." But then, to my ear, he dropped the ball: "100 times better" would have been better as "100 times as good."

"Times" constructions are about multiplication: If I have twice as much money as you, then your money x 2 = my money. "More than" and "less than," on the other hand, are verbalizations of addition and subtraction. If I have $50 more than you, then your money + $50 = my money. But "times more" implicitly conflates two different mathematical operations.

We seem to get it right with "twice." But when the numbers get higher, we tend to fall into "100 times better." Yet the better usage isn't that hard to get right, and it's often worth it for clarity.

The other "times more" that weekend was the title of a book: "A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us About Justice." It's by Kenji Yoshino, a New York University law professor. The idea is that the Bard provides legal insight into events of our own times, from the O.J. Simpson trial (cf. "Othello") to Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation. You may recall how "empathy" became something of a dirty word during her hearings. But compare "Measure for Measure," with its contrast between by-the-book enforcement of the rules and a more compassionate approach to justice.

The title of Yoshino's book is a quotation from "The Merchant of Venice," one of Portia's lines to Bassanio:

[F]or you I would be trebled twenty times myself;

A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich.

Well, there you go, the voices from the peanut gallery shout. Shakespeare did it, so it can't be wrong, can it? One might quibble whether the professor made fair use of the "fair" line, since it appears the Bard used fair to mean "beautiful" rather than "just."

There's something to the peanut gallery argument. The rules of a language are ultimately made by its speakers and writers, and in this Shakespeare counts for more than most of us. But the Bard could easily have written "a thousand times as fair," and been just as clear – though not, perhaps, a thousand times as right.

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