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07 February 2013

Common mistakes #9 (again): “51 times fewer”

Does no-one ever listen to what I say? Or would it be more precise to ask if anyone at the Moscow Times copy-editing department reads this blog? Probably not—too busy editing copy. They have my sympathy.
     So if anyone happens to catch one of them in the street, or relaxing in Papa’s after a long night at the VDU in that strange ex-furniture factory where the MT—an excellent paper, I should add for completeness—is produced, then they might explain to them once again that you should not use negative multiples when you wish to imply fractions.
     Today’s paper has another example. (I pointed this out as recently as 26 January – see post.)

     Note: “The Labor and Social Services Ministry reported an overall natural population decline of 2,573 people last year, or 51 times fewer than in 2011.”
     What on earth does that mean? Of course I can work it out. I presume they mean that the population decline in 2011 was 2,573 x 51, which equals 131,233. But why should I have read the sentence two or there times, then get out my calculator in order to decode the text? Why could the paper not have said:
“The Labour and Social Services Ministry reported that the natural population decline slowed, in round figures, from 131,000 in 2011 to 2,500 last year.”
     On the other hand if they wanted to make a point only about the relationship between the two totals, they could have written:
“The Labour and Social Services Ministry reported that the natural population decline decreased by 98% to 2,573 last year, compared with 2011.”
     And I’ll say this again, too: clarity if the first rule of good writing.

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