In one of his always good salvos against prescriptivism on Language Log, Arnold Zwicky happened to mention me (see Recency). In apparent reference to an editorial policy I had mentioned having against “X times X-er” statements (e.g., 5 times larger, 8 times smaller), as well as to comments by others who were opposed to the usage, he responded, “Yet I’ve never stopped asking, ‘Why don’t you understand the clear meaning of what people are saying?'”
The following was my response, which I think is worth setting forth as a statement of the different pragmatics governing editing and linguistics:
Points well made, obviously, but when setting an editorial policy, sometimes “Of course that’s what they mean” isn’t enough. We’re in the business of providing factual information about medications and health conditions, and one does well to keep one’s expressions not only legally defensible but also not open to debate. We avoid usages that are likely to distract some readers because they are subject to (perhaps unwarranted) hot debate, and we don’t use expressions that are, strictly speaking, mathematically improper (as “X times smaller than” is) because “everybody can understand that” simply isn’t good enough – partly because it’s often not true, and partly because we want to make sure what we’re saying is unambiguous, defensible, and not distracting.
To put it another way: Of course I can understand what a person who says “This is five times smaller than that” almost certainly means. And any linguist has not only the luxury but the obligation to look at that and accept it and sort out just why something like that is clear. But an editor does not have that luxury; editors have to be, in a sense, professionally thick-headed – they have to anticipate what things might be unclear, distracting, or otherwise controversial to enough readers that they should avoid them. (And, on the other hand, we have an obligation not to prefer inelegant or otherwise hard-to-read usages simply because a small set of people think the more elegant, smoother-reading usages are wrong.)
And there are perfectly suitable, clear and cogent alternative usages to “X times smaller than.” If there weren’t, that would put a different complexion on things. But an editorial policy is not a guide to going around judging other people correct or incorrect, right or foolish; it is simply a guide for the content that we produce to ensure that it is the most clear and effective English. And while “five times smaller than” is in fact a phrase of a type I have myself used in casual speech, I would be derelict in my duty as an editor of factual information on important topics (health being one such, I rather think) if I were not to prefer “80% smaller than” or “20% the size of” or any of the other available expressions that will stand up in a math classroom and, for that matter, a court of law.
Incidentally, lest I be subject to accusations of craven acquiescence to prescriptivist dogmas, allow me to assure those who are still reading that our editorial policy equally explicitly allows split infinitives, sentence-opening conjunctions, sentence-closing prepositions, etc. We’re very pragmatic. We want the text to read well, smoothly, and clearly. We’re not trying to be prissy, just reliable (which means defensible) and readable (which also means that it shouldn’t drag the reader’s attention away from what is being communicated).
Nor, by the way, just in case there’s any question of it, have I ever thought that the usage in question was new.