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March 16th, 2005

Times larger and times smaller

by Barbara Wallraff

Alan J. Stallard, of Sterling Heights, Mich., writes: “I notice that journalists write sentences such as ‘The ship is two times larger than the last one built’ and ‘The house is three times smaller than the one they used to own.’ Is the one ship twice as large as the other or three times as large? Is the house a third the size of the other or one fourth? I never know for certain. I worry that if this method of relating relative size shows up enough in the media, people will start using it when speaking with each other. What are your thoughts?”

Dear Alan: The people you know must be very well-spoken—or at least very traditional in the way they use language. I hear “times larger” and “times smaller”—not to mention “times more,” “times greater,” “times less,” “times fewer” and so forth—all the, um, time, in real life as well as in the media. (I’ll bet journalists have picked this wording up in their real lives.) I don’t say or write any of these things, though, and I’ll tell you why.

One problem with “two times larger” is, just as you say, that it’s confusing. “Larger” doesn’t mean the same thing as “as large,” so why should “two times larger” mean the same thing as “two times as large”? As for “two times less,” it is used to mean “half as much,” but I don’t know what we’re supposed to multiply by two to get that result. In fact, we’d need to divide by two—but since when does the word “times” have to do with division?

Another problem is: What would “one time larger” be? Shouldn’t it mean “twice as large”? And “one time smaller” seems as if it ought to be … nothing. (If a house is X big and you take away one time’s worth, or X amount, of its space, nothing is left.)

But we’re dealing with the English language, so logic isn’t the only thing that matters here. As it happens, virtually no one ever writes “one time larger” or “one time smaller,” except to refer to something like a “one-time, larger payment” (that is, a larger payment made once) or a “one-time (formerly) smaller competitor.”

Furthermore, “two (or however many) times larger” does mean the same thing as that many “times as large.” That’s the way “X times larger” is used. And “three times smaller” means a third as large—it just does. Some dictionaries even say so. For instance, under “time,” the American Heritage Dictionary says: “‘times.’ Used to indicate the number of instances by which something is multiplied or divided.”

To, um, sum up: “Times larger” or “times more,” etc. is a bit illogical and it might be unclear to a non-native speaker, but we all know what it means. “Times smaller” or “times less” is completely illogical. Even so, we still all know what it means. Because these phrases are common and not really ambiguous, and because at least some good dictionaries accept them, we have little cause for complaint when others use them. But since logical, traditional phrases like “two times as large” and “a third as large” are also available, why don’t you and I continue to use them instead?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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