Poe’s Law states that “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” The problem is that some Creationists really are so crazy that they can’t be parodied. I’m beginning to think that Poe’s Law needs to be adapted to apply to prescriptivism as well as Creationism; you would be hard-pressed to find a grammar claim so absurd that no grammarian would say it.
I mention this because of Gene Weingarten’s Chatological Humor, a chat on the Washington Post website. Weingarten is a humor writer for the Post, but he apparently feels strongly about grammar; his chat alternates between jokes and weird complaints about language usage. Given that the rest of chat is clearly intended to be humorous, it’s difficult to tell if he intends his grammatical advice to be humorous as well. The problem is that, as per Poe’s Law, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish honest insane complaints about grammar from facetious insane complaints. As a result, I’m slightly uncomfortable with deriding his grammatical beliefs. After all, there’s nothing that makes you look dumber than getting riled up about obvious satire.
Let’s go for it anyway. On the October 28 chat, Weingarten asks if there is something wrong with the sentence
(1) The drawing of the succubus was five times bigger than the drawing of the incubus.
Is there? Weingarten apparently thinks so:
“Something can’t be five times bigger than something else. It can be five times as big. “Bigger” allows only addition, nut [sic] multiplication as the modifying factor. “Five times bigger” is meaningless.”
This is insane on its face. First, math and grammar generally shouldn’t mix. That’s why Matt Lane (of Math Goes Pop!) and I no longer speak to each other. But seriously, what the devil is this even supposed to mean? I’m not even going to try to interpret the difference between addition and multiplication in bigger, because it’s so very obvious that this is completely wrong.
Five times bigger isn’t meaningless. I understand it, and I’m willing to bet that you do too. The only question is whether five times bigger means something that is 500 or 600% the size of the reference point. (From the examples I found from searching “exactly * times bigger” on Google, it looks like 500% is the standard interpretation.) But this uncertain interpretation just indicates that five times bigger is chock full of meanings, not meaningless.
And anyway, despite Weingarten’s assertion that five times bigger is impossible or meaningless, it’s been attested for centuries. Witness its use in The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (1699), The English Rogue (1671), or An Exposition of the Prophescie of Hosea (1641). Constructions don’t stick around for almost 500 years if they are meaningless. How utterly ignorant of your language do you have be to go around asserting such things?
Unless this is all a clever joke, in which case I have an awful lot of egg to get off my face.
Summary: X times bigger is a completely valid phrase, so long as X is a number/quantifier.