Monday, November 05, 2007

Pedantry in the defense of accuracy is no vice

The Boston Globe's Jan Freeman recently tossed her hat in with the "35 times less is no problem" crowd.

Well, in this case, I'll push back just as Bill Walsh has. Yes, the term has been used in literature for years. And yes, there might be minimal chance of confusion. But I don't like minimal as an editor when the alternative -- a thirty-fifth of (or 3 percent of) -- allows for no confusion at all.

Freeman, whom I immensely respect, has unfortunately become an apologist for the "it's math -- I don't like it much so I just have to get close" crowd.

Likewise, she calls on the Merriam-Webster usage guide, one of the most permissive, to suggest that the distinction between as large as and larger than (or in her case: "more" might as well be equivalent to "as much as") is unneeded. Again, if a writer can be accurate, instead of close to accurate, why not? And I have dealt with my share of stories where writers mixed the terms, though the underlying material was quite precise about their use.

Freeman also goes astray when she writes: I've heard people argue that threefold and its brothers are ambiguous, too, but I doubt it. The Oxford English Dictionary says threefold has meant "three times as much" since it was an Old English word; it seems perverse to keep looking for ways to make it mysterious.Pray tell, then, what does it mean when a writer writes "a threefold increase." If 9 is threefold 3, which is what her citation would (correctly) tell us, how can it also be a threefold increase -- yet we see these constructions quite often. And I'd submit it's because of the flabbiness that Freeman sanctions elsewhere.

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