I’ve flown north for the winter, leaving behind this crummy weather:
Much better. Along with leaving that damnable squint-inducing sun, I thought I’d also left behind the world of grammar curmudgeons when I got back to Pittsburgh. After all, this is the sort of town where many people add an r to wash and half the people find nothing the slightest bit odd about saying “My grammar doesn’t need corrected.” But as always, I was mistaken.
Last month, I argued that “five times bigger” is obviously grammatical. Unfortunately, James Kilpatrick didn’t read that post. Today I looked at Literal-Minded, who directed me to The Language Guy, who directed me to an old Kilpatrick column, which directed me to an older Kilpatrick column, in which he opines that “statistically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘six times lower.'” I am not a statistician. That much I will freely admit. However, I’m willing to bet that neither Kilpatrick nor Lewis Guignard of Crouse, N.C., to whom Kilpatrick turns to buttress his claim, are statisticians either. And the reason I am willing to make that bet is that, statistically speaking, there is such a thing as “six times lower”.
In fact, if Google is to be trusted, there are on the order of 16,000 such things as “six times lower” on the Internet. And it’s not just a bunch of idiots using “six times lower”. The phrase is attested in an Irish newspaper, an Australian newspaper, and an Indian government press release. Furthermore, there are a lot of hits for times lower in Google Scholar, including 10 or so in books and journals with the word “statistics” in their titles, suggesting that people who actually are statisticians are fine with the construction as well. So, statistically speaking, Kilpatrick is completely wrong.
As it turns out, the construction is over 200 years old. David Hume, he of the famous philosophical development that I forgot as soon as I turned in the AP European History test, wrote in his History of England:
“Yet the middling price of cattle, so late as the reign of king Richard, we find to be above eight, near ten times lower than the present.”
Given that Hume died in 1776, I am pretty comfortable in claiming that the construction X times lower predates Kilpatrick. Heck, it predates the United States of America.
Now the only remaining objection to the eminently reasonable X times lower construction is that its meaning isn’t immediately clear. But that’s rubbish. It means exactly what it sounds like it ought to mean. The Brie was six times cheaper than the cave-aged Gruyere means that if the Brie cost $4, then the Gruyere cost $24. But don’t just trust me on that one. Trust the press release for the Nobel Prize awarded to Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, William D. Phillips, and Secretary of Energy nominee Steven Chu:
“It was found that the temperature was about 240 µK. This … agreed very well with a theoretically calculated temperature – the Doppler limit … Phillips found in 1988 that a temperature as low as 40µK could be attained. This value was six times lower than the theoretically calculated Doppler limit!”
So, just as with five times bigger, if you continue to object to six times lower, you are, statistically speaking, dumb.
Summary: “Six times lower” is no less intelligible and no less grammatical than “five times bigger”. Which, of course, is both intelligible and grammatical.