Language problems

We often see the same language problems over and over again in the manuscripts we receive. Here we discuss some of the more common problem categories.

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-Fold, times larger, times smaller,
and times fewer

Authors often introduce inaccuracy when they use fold to describe an increase (or decrease) in value. If a control group of bacteria yields 5 mutant colonies and a treated group yields 15 mutant colonies, the new number of mutant colonies is 3 times the old number; it is not 3-fold greater than the old number. The increase is 10 colonies, which is only 2-fold. Because fold is a confusing term, it is best to avoid it and to compare actual values instead.  Thus, it would be better to write, The number of mutant colonies in the treated group was 3 times the number in the control group, or The treated group yielded 3 times as many mutant colonies as the untreated group.

A similar problem is associated with times larger—but an even worse problem arises with times smaller and times fewer. That’s because no physical size or quantity can be more than 1 x smaller, or 1 x less, than the original (because both 1 x smaller and 1 x fewer = 0).  For example, arabidopsis has 10 chromosomes and the mouse has 40 chromosomes, but an author who writes that arabidopsis has 4 x fewer chromosomes than the mouse is saying that arabidopsis has 160 (that’s 4 x 40) fewer than 40 chromosomes, which is equal to -120 chromosomes—and that makes no sense.  It would be better to write, Arabidopsis has 1/4 the number of chromosomes as the mouse, or The mouse has 4 x as many chromosomes as arabidopsis.

“In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.”  John von Neumann (1903–1957)

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Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569)