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19 March 2014

Common mistakes No. 9 (yet again): “fell by 350%”

Comrade Mugabe, who is 90, scratching his head
at Ms Latynina's mathematics
The readership of this blog continues to rise, yet the number of mistakes in published English from people who ought to know better does not seem to fall.
     In today’s Moscow Times, Yulia Latynina has a sensible and intelligent article about the psychology of psychopathic political rulers. It is entitled The Ideology of Losers and it deserves a wide readership. But how wide will that readership be when the author makes absurd statements like the one below?  
“Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has ruled for more than 33 years. Even while the country's population rose from 7 million to 12 million during his reign, the gross domestic product fell by 350 percent.” 
     No such indicator can fall by 350%. This is not an issue of translation. It is one of logic. I have written about several times, most recently on 7 February last year. 
     If the Zimbabwean economy 33 years ago was the size it was, then it was 100% of itself, obviously. How can it contract by more than its total size? There can be no such thing as a negative-sized economy. I have no idea what Ms Latynina wants us to understand by this nonsensical statement. Any reader who can suggest a meaning should send a comment. Better still, they should pass this post on to Ms Latynina herself, copying it to the head Comrade so he can stop scratching his nonagenarian head about it.


  1. In her radio broadcast on March 15, Ms Latynina mentioned a 3.5 times decrease in Zimbabwe GDP. So I guess it was either her, or the translator's, or the editor's error in conversion from times to %. It is entirely possible that Ms Latynina made the error herself: she is known for occasional funny mistakes, such as "a needle of an oscilloscope", although I am not sure she wrote the English text herself.

  2. Thank you for leaping to Ms Latynina's defence so gallantly. However, I fear that does not excuse her as "3.5 times" is the same as 350% (which is 3.5 times 100%). This is not an issue of the English language, just one of clear thinking and numeracy.

    1. The text in Russian (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/columns/62713.html) got it correct: "ВВП страны упал в три с половиной раза".
      "3.5 times decrease" would mean a fall from, for example 7 smth. to 2 smth. Which is not quite to compare with a decrease by 350% – an impossible movement for a GDP, even for that of Zimbabwe.

  3. Someone at the Moscow Times definitely reads your blog and make notes of mistakes. Though sometimes it appear that they do not know how to correct them ;-)

    At the time I skimmed through the article editors deleted "350%" but unsure what to change it to, left the sentence incomplete. Right now it reads like this : "the gross domestic product fell by ."

    Maybe you should be more generous and instead of just pointing out mistakes try to suggest a proper replacement. Indeed, it wouldn't have taken too much of your time to suggest something like "domestic product fell down to 28% of it's original number 33 years ago", or "fell by 78%". But it would save the paper from an embarrassment they found themselves in leaving an incomplete sentence.

    Just joking ;-)