Using 'Times Less' Subtracts From Clarity

By Rob Kyff

August 21, 2019 3 min read

Q: I see the following two phrases all too often: 1) "Three (or two or four) times less." I would think "one times less" means it is free, and that "two times less" means you get paid the value of the item if you take it away! 2) "One of the only," as in "one of the only car dealers to offer this." One of the only what? — Francis Charest, East Hartford, Connecticut

A: You are a shrewd consumer, Francis, and a savvy grammarian as well. Both of these usage slips involve counting, and you're right on both counts.

Using "X times less," no matter what the value of X may be, always causes confusion. A recent story in the New York Post, for instance, referred to Pedialyte's claim that it's better than most sports drinks because it contains "two times less sugar." Does that mean Pedialyte contains half the sugar, a third of the sugar, no sugar, or even some kind of negative sugar content? Who knows?

Likewise, a recent Denver Post story reported that the $730,000 spent to prevent wildfires was "more than 100 times less" than the $120 million spent to put out wildfires. By my calculation, "100 times less" would mean that NEGATIVE $11.88 billion was spent on preventing wildfires ($12 billion, minus the first $120 million).

You're 100 times more likely to avoid absurdities like this if you avoid "times less" entirely and simply use fractions or percentages; e.g., half the sugar, 50% of the sugar, less than one hundredth (or less than 1%) of the $120 million spent.

As for the "one of the only car dealers" trope, "only," like "unique," means "sole, one-of-a-kind." So if there's at least one other car dealer making this offer, how can this one claim to be the "only" one doing so?

The correct wording is "one of the few car dealers to offer this." This boast sounds much less impressive, of course, so marketers insert "only," hoping that its alluring, one-of-a-kind aroma will get bargain-hungry customers salivating.

But the misuse of "only" for "few" isn't restricted to advertising. A recent New York Times story referred to "one of the only (read 'few') administration officials who was already booked for the Sunday talk shows," while a Washington Post headline read, "Congress is losing one of the only (read 'few') incentives it had to address the deficit."

Despite this growing misuse, I encourage you to resist the seductive allure of using "only" to mean "few," even though you might be one of the only ... er, few people to do so.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: congerdesign at Pixabay

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