Less is not more

Today I sit in judgment.

A petition has arrived from a reader who says that “we've been engaged, here in the office, in a discussion regarding the phrase ‘five times less than’ which appeared in a memo from our CEO the other day.

“It seems like the math of the sentence doesn't work. You can have ‘five times more’ or ‘one-fifth of’ but ‘five times less than’ doesn't compute. Multiplication has to result in more, not less, I say. Division results in less.

“We have agreed that if I can get you to do a post on the subject, we will abide by your decision. We will also forward the link to the post to our corporate communications department (which writes these memos for our CEO.)”

I find for the petitioner. “One time” amounts to the total, and once “one time less” has occurred, the total is zero. If, in fact, five times less, is meant to indicate that the total has dropped to a fifth of the previous total, then one-fifth is preferable.

Balance and impartiality demand, however, that I give notice of a dissenting opinion by the estimable Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe, who writes, citing the authority of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, that times less has ample precedent in the language and is unlikely to be misunderstood. Idiom, in this opinion, trumps logic.

My learned colleague Bill Walsh at The Washington Post, however, has issued two opinions on the subject, here and here, which I take as a concurrence.

Petitioner will note that this is an opinion rendered — a preference rather than statutory law.



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