"zero evidence" ascendent?

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S.H. writes:

Maybe I'm suffering from a recency illusion, but I feel that "zero" has begun to replace "no".

I see this often in Washington Post political columns, and here's an example from Robert Reich:

Of course, these claims haven’t held up in court because there’s zero evidence.

Checking Google Books ngrams suggests that "zero evidence" is indeed increasing relative to "no evidence", but was still about 1000 times less common a decade ago, and is now about 500 times less common in the surveyed sources:

As for the WaPo, "zero evidence" is indeed doing better than that, with 319 instances since 2005 relative to 14,757 for "no evidence", yielding a ratio of only 46 to 1. This also puts the WaPo well ahead of the NYT, which over the same time period has 87 instances of "zero evidence" compared to 13,059 for "no evidence", for a ratio of 124 to 1.

The OED's entry for zero as an adjective gives a sense of "no, not any", adding that "With mass noun. Sometimes, esp. in non-technical contexts, with stronger emphasis, meaning 'absolutely no, no…whatsoever'", citing examples back to 1882 (with the recent ones being all journalistic):

1882 G. M. Minchin Uniplanar Kinematics 25 The surface of still water is agitated by wave disturbances proceeding from three fixed points..: find the points of zero disturbance.
1960 Jrnl. Abnormal & Social Psychol. 61 110/1 A subject indicated zero social distance by stating that he was willing to marry a member of a particular ethnic group.
1962 Times 30 Oct. 4/6 Good design points include ‘zero torque’.
1981 TV Picture Life Mar. 39/3 Jackie claims they now have ‘zero communication’.
2015 N.Y. Mag. 21 Sept. 20/1 The Yankees had zero hope for either this year, and each player performed like an all-star.



  1. Keith said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 8:33 am

    Suggest doing a collaboration with Strong Words on the subject "zero v. no fucks given".

  2. Don said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 9:57 am

    The bit about "stronger emphasis" seems key here. I'd think that if someone is talking about a lack of evidence, it's often going to be in the context of an indignant response to some bald assertion that the speaker takes exception to. It's not surprising that they'd go for the emphatic "absolutely no, no…whatsoever" connotation in that case.

  3. Samuel Buggeln said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 10:17 am

    Since this is a language blog, maybe a usage note will not seem pedantic. In my understanding, when [common item] is "1000 times more" common than a less common one, the converse isn't that the lesser is "1000 times less common". You can't multiply a positive number by 1000 and have it be less— the lesser quantity is "1/1000 [as common as]." Sorry and I'll show myself out.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 10:41 am

    The 1882 and 1960 citations look like straightforward uses of zero in its mathematical sense. The first asks students to solve an equation; the second defines the zero point of a metric. So I don't think either can be counted as instances of the zero-for-emphasis usage.

  5. john v burke said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 11:06 am

    I think there are contexts in which "zero" (and its complement "non-zero") lend an air of scientific exactness that "no" and "some don't provide. Besides their literal meaning, they're signifiers, as "no" and "some" aren't.

  6. Daniel said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 2:01 pm

    Samuel, that's exactly what "1000 times less common" means in English. The usage is fine.

    Gregory, I agree. All the examples are technical except for the last two, in 1981 and 2015.

  7. Russinoff said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 2:31 pm

    Samuel, as you have noted, "1000 times less common" is utter nonsense. But "1000 times more common" is actually equivalent to "1001 times as common"; the less frequent occurrence is therefore 1/1001 as common.

  8. ktschwarz said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    Russinoff/Samuel: actual scientists have no problem understanding "times less" and use it all the time in scientific writing. See for yourself in any journal. Examples from nature.com:

    High-fidelity variants are 40–300 times less virulent than wild-type poliovirus.
    an improved design for solar cells that requires 100 times less material than conventional wafer-based devices
    weighing around 500,000 times less than an electron
    A distant galaxy (~20 Mpc) appears to have a dark matter component several hundred times less massive than expected

    Journalists and writers, including the most elite, also think it's just fine. From newyorker.com:

    Powder River Basin coal, which contains as much as five times less sulfur than Appalachian coal
    two thousand times less radioactive than the average banana
    twenty milliwatts per square centimetre, more than a thousand times less than a traditional chip

    It's a long-established usage, going back at least as far as Jonathan Swift. For more historical background, look up "times" in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.

  9. astrange said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 3:23 pm

    > 1960 Jrnl. Abnormal & Social Psychol. 61 110/1 A subject indicated zero social distance by stating that he was willing to marry a member of a particular ethnic group.

    This is an interesting use of "social distance".

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 3:59 pm

    "Interesting", yes, but I have no idea what the author was seeking to convey through the use of that phrase in that particular context.

  11. D.O. said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 4:16 pm

    "Zero" as an emphatic substitute of "no" is much more prevalent in "zero tolerance" collocation. I guess, "zero tolerance" attained a fixed expression or term of art status. Ratios of "zero X" frequencies "no X" frequencies seem to be larger for X = effort and chance, but frequencies themselves are lower.

  12. D.O. said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 4:19 pm

    What we are practicing now with covid, is physical distance (if Norma L. can temporarily withhold her judgement), social distance is more in a manner of "N degrees of separation".

  13. Julian said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 4:26 pm

    @Samuel Buggeln
    Like you, I've always been niggled/amused by the illogicality of '1000 times less'. So that makes two of us. But we have to admit –
    – language is not logical
    – the meaning is clear
    – there are bout three billion times more people in the world who don't care.
    I'll come with you and we can have a drink in the back yard and talk about grammar.

  14. ktschwarz said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 5:06 pm

    "By social distance is meant the perceived gap between classes, in terms of inequality of various kinds, the amount of deference or respect, or the unlikeliness of people making friends or marrying between classes." —The Psychology of Social Class by Michael Argyle (1994). Merriam-Webster dates this sense to 1824.

  15. Anthony said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 11:00 pm

    There's the current sense of "social distance" and the established anthropological one:


  16. David Morris said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 3:32 am

    Off the top of my head, I can also think of zero sense, effort, dollars and fucks. Google Ngrams shows that zero is still usually used in scientific contexts.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 4:28 am

    And today, from the Grauniad, "'Zero per cent true' / Iran propaganda accuses Kylie Moore-Gilbert of spying for Israel with Bahraini help".

  18. Ed M said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:06 am

    The concept of "500 times less common" makes my head hurt. Yes, I understand the numbers in the ngram and how they got there — but is "500 times less common" something that makes sense in the real, lived world? Perhaps more accurate to say "x of y references in 2010 versus q out of r references in 2019"

  19. Daz said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:12 am

    Regarding "1,000 times less," it's worth noting that division is just a way of expressing multiplication. Specifically it's multiplication by the reciprocal, so for example:
    6÷2=3 is not just functionally equivalent to, but is the exact same statement as
    (Which is why, if you've ever wondered, division and multiplication have the same priority in the order of operations.)

    I'm not sure if that helps at all, but it seemed pertinent enough to mention.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 8:05 am

    Ignoring the noise-level effects of potential "off by one" errors, I do not personally have any problem understanding what is meant by phrases such as "1000 times less common".

  21. Rodger C said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 2:23 pm

    What opinion do AAVE scholars have of Eleanor Wilson Orr's Twice as Less?

  22. Viseguy said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 8:30 pm

    I thought maybe "zero evidence" was on its way to replacing "not a shred of evidence" and variants thereof, but the Ngram Viewer doesn't exactly bear this out, though "zero" is lately on the rise and "shred" on the decline.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

    The google books n-gram viewer bears the sad news that the rather elegant "not a scintilla" has been in decline for the last century.

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