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.

-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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