In a message about the "excruciatingly slow internet speed in China" that I privately circulated to some friends, students, and colleagues, I made the statement that "in many cases that I have personally experienced, the internet speed in China is actually hundreds of times slower than it is in the United States and elsewhere in the world." Geoff Wade wrote back to me: "Grammatical question: can something be hundreds of times slower than anything else?"
Thus began an intense series of exchanges that lasted over two days. I won't repeat all of our arguments and counterarguments, but will briefly summarize their gist and give some examples of how I defended myself against Geoff's spirited opposition to the "times slower" construction.
VHM: If a tortoise "runs" ten feet in one minute and a rabbit runs a thousand feet in one minute, the rabbit has run hundreds of times faster / farther than the tortoise; the tortoise has "run" hundreds of times slower than the rabbit.
GW: I obviously agree with the "times faster", but am not convinced of the "times slower" use. Would not one-hundreth times as fast be more accurate? A multiple (times) and a divisor (one-hundreth) seem to have different functions.
VHM: We'll have to get a mathematician to adjudicate this one.
GW: In brief, I don't see how lack of speed can be represented as a multiple (times), vis-a-vis something going faster.
VHM: Well, Geoff, before we bring in the mathematician, let me put my case another way:
go slower / more slowly
go 5 times slower / more slowly (GW: go one-fifth as fast, not five times slower)
go 10 times slower / more slowly (GW: go one-tenth as fast, not 10 times slower)
go a 100 times slower / more slowly (GW: go one-hundreth as fast, not 100 times slower)
go hundreds of times slower / more slowly
Similarly, we could talk about the rate of a chemical reaction or the rate of economic expansion slowing down at greater and greater rates
GW: Yes, the rate of chemical reaction could be increasingly slow — but it would not be "x times slower" than before. Rather it would "1/x as fast" as before.
Maybe it is just British and American English. I don't think the Brits say, for example, "five times as slow" or "five times slower".
VHM: Fast and slow are mirror opposites of each other.
GW: I thought I might be isolated in my concerns, but there are others out there…… [here Geoff assembled a number of quotations from the web of people complaining about the "times smaller / less / slower…" construction]
VHM: Train A is going 200 miles an hour, Train B is going 100 miles an hour, Train C is going 10 miles an hour.
Train A is going 20 times faster than Train C (GW: I completely agree); Train C is going 20 times slower / more slowly than Train A. (GW: Nope. You cannot be "times slower". Train C is going 1/20th the speed of Train A.)
I'll see if I can get my buddies at Language Log to adjudicate.
GW: I am sure that your Language Logger friends will be on my side!
At this point, I consulted with my colleagues at Language Log headquarters, and Ben Zimmer directed me to this post by Arnold Zwicky: "Recency".
In his post, Arnold gives a masterful account of the "Times-er construction", including showing how — both in its "more" and "less" manifestations — it has been around in English (and Finnish and Latin…) for centuries.
GW: It seems that the construction has been in use for a long time, but there are a few of us stick-in-the-muds who still find it strange. We all grow up with certain beliefs about our language practices…..
I have submitted, but my mind may take some time to adjust…..
kòutóu 叩头 ("kowtow")
VHM: I sympathize with you, Geoff, and can appreciate why this usage is blowing your mind away, but conceptually it's actually very much like the jiāyǐ 加以 ("increasingly") construction in Chinese, where you can — seemingly paradoxically — have expressions like this: jiāyǐ jiǎnshǎo 加以减少 ("increasingly fewer"). Those types of expressions always used to blow my mind away too, but finally I got used to them, because they've been occurring in Chinese texts for the last two millennia and are still very common today.
Tansen Sen had been listening in on the entire debate between Geoff and me. He brought it to a close with these brilliant words: "Ok, as a referee, I call an end to this discussion, which has been ten times faster than anything I have seen before through email exchanges, but twenty times slower than on a tweeter forum."
GW: We are old generation. Six times too old for tweets….
Meanwhile, around the water cooler at Language Log Central, Paul Kay observed:
My seat-of-the-pants take on this: there are two questions here (at least). The one your friend seems most concerned with is "two times faster" versus "twice as fast". The other is (a) given as acceptable either or both "twice as fast" and "two times as fast", (b) can one say "twice/two times as slow"? My impression — based on no data — is that in American English all three forms are common but "two times as slow/slower" is heavily stigmatized and "two times as fast/faster" perhaps lightly stigmatized. In contrast, in academic and literary French, "deux fois plus lent/petit/court" is just fine. The first G-hit for "deux fois plus court" (of a probably meaninglessly estimated 3.5 million) just now was "Le texte d'Eph étant deux fois plus court que celui d'He, cette différence de traitement garde exactement la proportion voulue. Le nombre des mots est identique …" from Google Books. Clearly an academic source. I remember when growing up being taught that I should stop saying things like "twice as short"; that such talk is illogical. And being a dutiful child, that's what I did. Imagine my surprise decades later to hear "deux fois plus court" from the mouths of linguistically fastidious French academics.
Whether either or both "two time shorter" and "deux fois plus court" is (are?!) illogical, I leave for your friend to decide.
And Barbara Partee remarked:
Arnold in his last paragraph writes, "I was taught that two times more than X really means 'three times as many as X'." (i.e. X + 2X, as it was put earlier in Arnold's post) My own father insisted on that, and convinced me it made sense because we all (I think) see the difference between "Box A contains 50% more Cheerios than Box B" and "Box C contains 50% as many Cheerios as Box B." I'm sure that Box A does contain 150% as many Cheerios as Box B in that case. (Interesting that we say 'half again as many' vs 'half as many' for the same distinction; we can't say 'half more', I don't think.) But when it gets to bigger numbers, I don't "feel" any distinction, and I will (if I'm thinking about it) avoid "twice more than" because for me it's ambiguous between the meaning my father convinced me it should have and the meaning I can feel just as easily, maybe more easily, where it's synonymous with "twice as many as".
I have no opinion on "three times as slow" — I never thought about that before. I can see both sides — it doesn't sound bad to me and Victor's symmetry arguments sound reasonable, and evidently lots of people do it. On the other hand there is one big difference: it's the "positive" adjectives that we also use as the "neutral" forms for adding measurement modifiers: 6 feet tall, or 4 feet tall, but never 4 feet short. ('90 years young' is used as a joke.) But I don't think there's a restriction on modifying comparatives. With measure modifiers, "A is 3 inches taller than B" is a neutral description; "B is 3 inches shorter than A" may suggest (I'm not sure it has to) that they're both short, but the two are equivalent. But the OKness of those doesn't "prove" the OKness of "B is twice as short as A" — it might be odd because of implying that you should be able to tell me how short both are in some measure terms, like *B is 3 feet short and A is 6 feet short, and that's clearly impossible. Interesting - but we'll be traveling today, so I don't have time to try to think any farther than that.
One thing is certain: all of this is much too heady for a beautiful fall day, when I should be out running in the woods, but I'll be less than content if I don't get this off my chest before I go out and enjoy the foliage.