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A fraction of the meaning

October 6, 2011

Have you noticed how often the expression ‘a fraction of’ is used, to mean ‘a very small fraction of’? Here are some headlines:

Oxi: Twice as powerful as crack cocaine at just a fraction of the price

Royal living at a fraction of the cost

Holiday homes with a fraction of the hassle

I know headlines need to be short, so maybe they are forgiven, but I notice it all over the place. A fraction could be ninety-nine one-hundredths, or even closer to one than that. I guess nine-eighths is a fraction too – that’s more than one!

What interests me is that when I read the headline about the holiday homes, I register immediately that these holiday homes are far far less hassle than some other holiday homes, which is what the writer wanted me to do. But what does the headline actually say? Nothing really.

Clever or misleading?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip Sheahan permalink
    October 6, 2011 10:05

    An interesting observation, Jane. You have succinctly summed-up the essence of language: it is not what is written or spoken but how it is interpreted and understood. Without exception, all you examples given would be interpreted by a native English speaker as being a very small amount.

    Confusion only arises when non-native interpretation is involved. I live in a cul-de-sac – what fraction of the population would be concerned that I was living in the bum of a bag?

    • October 7, 2011 10:45

      Answer: only those who speak French and think about language simultaneously – a sadly diminishing fraction. About half a percent I guess.

  2. October 6, 2011 22:02

    Never mind ‘fractions’. What really upsets us serious pedants is ‘decimate’. This is often used to imply reduction to a nearly nothing. But the origin is the Roman legions who, when an enemy was facing defeat, offered the option of decimation. Rather than continue fighting and have everyone klilled (and probably the womenfolk taken into slavery) they were ofered the option of lining up the troops and having every tenth soldier put to the sword (in other words their army was ‘decimated’). If it had been the other way round (one in ten left alive) there would have been little point in surrendering.

    And then there is ‘access’ and ‘impact’ used as nouns and …But I’d better stop now as I can hear Nurse coming down the corridor.

  3. October 6, 2011 22:17

    And another thing.. the problem in replying to blogs is that there isn’t an in-built spell check so I would like to add that ‘klilled’ and ‘ofered’ are the fault of the internet and do not diminish my main point at all.

  4. October 7, 2011 10:41

    Thank you Frank. Decimated is a nice example of a word that has lost its meaning. How could it be used correctly? Sainsbury’s could shout ‘prices decimated!’ But that would cause complaints such as: ‘I don’t call ten percent off decimated. That’s just sales hype’.

    Your other point about ‘access’ and ‘impact’ intrigues me. My father used to complain about ‘contact’ and ‘impact’ being used as verbs. In his opinion they were nouns and should stay that way… However, checking my Fowlers, I see that impact was a verb first and started being a noun in the eighteenth century so now I see why you need a nurse!

    • Frank Hobson permalink
      October 7, 2011 17:44

      It could be used correctly in its original meaning – just not very often. Other words such as ‘slashed’ etc do just as well for sales prices. And it wasn’t ‘contact’ and ‘impact’ I mentioned, it was ‘access’ and ‘impact’. When did you last take your door key out and say “I am about to access my house”? Fowler probably did 200 years ago. Or as Tesco might say ‘200 years or less’!

      Maybe next time I tread on an insect I should call my self a ‘ped-ant’. In fact, thinking about it I pedanted one of the little bilghters just the other day.

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