Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Half Less!

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2004

Also during our Thanksgiving visit, I noticed that Grandma drinks different orange juice than Doug and Adam do. It’s Tropicana Light and Healthy, and it proudly states on the carton:

1/2 less calories and sugar than orange juice!

Now I’m not going to comment on the implication that this Light and Healthy stuff is not really orange juice (they said, “than orange juice,” not “than other orange juice”). Nor am I going to comment on the use of less instead of fewer with the count noun calories–although the interesting question arises of whether less or fewer is more appropriate when you’re coordinating a count noun and a mass noun, as occurs in calories and sugar.

What caught my attention on this label was just the fact that half less doesn’t make any sense! Well, it does, but it shouldn’t. Two factors are causing me trouble. First, suppose we were dealing with a whole number instead of a fraction, say three. Three times more than is OK; three times as much as is OK; but three times less than isn’t OK in my dialect, on semantic grounds. However, I know that for some speakers, three times less than is meaningful, having the same meaning as 1/3 as much as, so let’s suppose that’s the dialect used on the juice carton.

But now, applying the same reasoning to 1/2 less than as we did for three times less than, it should mean “two times more than”! Whoa–this Light and Healthy OJ has twice the calories and sugar of regular! Clearly, that’s not what they mean; we need some clear rules for interpreting comparative phrases like these, that will get us logically to the intended reading.

The easy cases are the ones constructed as many/much as. If you have “X (times) as much as” some amount Y, you have X*Y units. This is true whether X is a natural number (as in three times as much) or a fraction (as in two-thirds as much).

More complicated are the phrases with more than. If you have a natural number X, and say, “X times more than” some amount Y, you mean X*Y units. Thus, three times more than Bob has means 3*Y, where Y = the amount Bob has. But if X is a fraction, and you say, “X more than” an amount Y, then you mean (1+X)*Y; thus, two-thirds more than Bob has means (1+ 2/3)*Y, where Y = the amount Bob has.

Now we come to the phrases with less than. If you have a natural number X and say, “X times less than” an amount Y (assuming you speak the dialect in which this is grammatical), then you mean Y/X units. Thus, three times less than Bob has means Y/3 units, where Y = the usual. And what if X is a fraction? The rule seems to be that if you say, “X less than” an amount Y, you mean (1-X)*Y. Thus, two-thirds less than Bob has means (1 – 2/3)*Y, or just (1/3)*Y.

So now, returning to 1/2 less calories and sugar, if we take the above rules to be part of the grammar, the phrase should be OK, right? Well, the semantics works out now, I guess, but it still sounds bad. I think at this point it’s just a prosodic problem: half more and half less just don’t sound right, even though two-thirds more and two-thirds less sound OK. If we pronounced 1/2 as one second, I think it might work, except of course for that pesky unit-of-time meaning for second that would confuse things.

So why did the copywriters, so conscious of how words sound, use this phrasing that’s ungrammatical on semantic grounds for many speakers, and prosodically bad for (I’d say) almost all of them? Why, when the impeccable 1/2 as many is available? I’m guessing they didn’t want to risk a passing shopper catching just a glimpse of the message, missing the fraction, and reading, “as many calories and sugar as orange juice!”

9 Responses to “Half Less!”

  1. furious said

    Loved the post.

    Sometime will you pretty please comment on the “than orange juice” part? I see that on so many product ads, and what always strikes me is, if it isn’t orange juice than what is it?

    I’d love to read your answer to that.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. You’re wrong about “X times more than Y.” It’s unclear whether it means “X times as much as Y” or “Y + X*Y.” Bill Walsh agrees with me:

  3. “1/2 as many calories” may be grammatically OK to most speakers; “*1/2 as many sugar” isn’t, because singular “sugar” is a mass noun in this context. “Half the sugar and calories of [regular] orange juice” seems like the best way to reword that label.

  4. When I began studying English, nearly 25 years ago, I was taught “fewer” went with count nouns while “less” went with non-count nouns. As time went by I have realised the difference is, seemingly, disappearing. I think both
    “A Students Grammar of the English Language”, by Randolph Quirk and ” Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English ” by Douglas Biber, J. Leech,et. al., mention the fact.

  5. OOOPS!!! I agree with you, “half less …” does not make any sense … without the help of common sense. You have to resort to what teachers call “experience of the world” to figure out what that label is intended to mean.

  6. […] A few years ago, I wrote about phrases like ten times less, and how something like this makes sense only if you interpret is […]

  7. Jackson said

    Wouldn’t it be you take half of X and then subtract it from X? That’s how I interpret it. It doesn’t say “1/2 times less than”, rather “1/2 less than”.

  8. Keith said

    Surely the best solution, allowing the copywriters to avoid the “…as many calories…” construction, would have been “half the calories and sugar…”.

  9. Alan S said

    I think the ‘x times less …’ concept has its roots in the advertising industry – not a good pedigree so far as accuracy and logic are concerned. I first noticed this when a type of muesli was advertised as ‘40% less fat than y brand’. Advertisers love the ‘less’ concept, especially when diet is concerned. I wondered how my old maths master would have reacted – probably with the cane – however it goes to show that if you’re not much good at maths or science there is better paid work in advertising. Mathematically it should read ‘60% of the fat content of y brand’.

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