Monday, June 01, 2009

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other...More or Less

I'm reading an amazing non-fiction book right now about a very mythologized time in American history. It turns out that the truth is much more fascinating than the myth. But I'm not going to name the book because I'm about to nitpick one itty-bitty aspect of its writing. In terms of its greatness, this book is as huge as a blue whale and my gripe should be seen as a tiny barnacle hidden beneath one of its massive fins.

Here's my pet peeve: I get annoyed when people use a big number to define a smaller number to make the smaller number seem big. For example, when someone says a business made a quarter of a million dollars, it sounds like a lot of money. But a quarter of a million dollars is actually closer to zero dollars than a million dollars. So why not just say the business made $250,000? Doesn't $250,000 sound big enough? Maybe, but when you add a million to the description it sounds like even more!

The same thing applies to saying half a dozen instead of six. Just say six! Why do you have to add the word dozen to make is seem like more? Is six really that embarrassing?

In this fascinating book I'm reading, the author applies this trick in an even sneakier way. He adds the words close to or about before saying half a dozen. So now we're not even talking about six, but five. Just say five!

Now, this can be justified when talking about space or time. Saying someone traveled close to half a dozen miles means they were closer to six miles than five. Fine. But can you honestly justify saying they had close to half a dozen guns? Remember, it's not a dozen guns we're talking about. It's not even six (or half a dozen) guns. It's five guns! The same thing applies to abducting about half a dozen hostages. We're talking about five hostages!

There is another possibility. The author could have meant seven guns or seven hostages, which is just as close to half a dozen as five. But it seems the goal was to upgrade the impact of the numbers, not downgrade. If there really were seven guns and hostages, and if he wanted seven to seem bigger, he should've said close to eight guns and hostages. That, of course, would've made his literary trick too obvious...and writers hate being obvious. We like being sneaky!

Anyway, go read this book (if you can figure out which one I'm talking about). It really is great! Within the first 150 pages, I only found this sneaky number-expanding trick nearly a third of a dozen times.


Steve Brezenoff said...

So . . . three times?

Jay Asher said...

Yes. Sorry, maybe I should've just said three.

Anonymous said...

I completely suck at math and so when authors write like that or when people talk like that, I am so confused. It made me laugh that my favorite author has one of the same pet-peves as me.

caprica_lex said...

"close to half a dozen guns"? Really? I'm not an author, but even I realise that this sounds dumb.

Jay Asher said...

Anon., maybe that's why this is a big pet peeve of mine. I suck at math, too.

C_L, the first time I read that line, I went back and re-read it several times to make sure I was reading it right. And then my head almost exploded.

Anonymous said...

I am soooooo confused, what book is it?

Kat Heckenbach said...

I don't suck at math--I used to teach it--and stuff like that bugs me to no end. It's like saying that the incidence of something "increased by 100%" when there was only two cases in 10,000 to begin with. A 100% increase in that case only means it happened four times in 10,000!

It's statistical semantics, and you're not alone in having it as a pet peeve :).

I have NO idea what book you're talking about, but if the author does that--and his editor doesn't put a stop to it--then I really have no desire to read it anyway!

Hey, you could have called your book "108% of a Dozen Reasons Why."

Jay Asher said...

Anonymous, you tell me who you are and I'll tell you the book.

Actually, no I won't. But I am taking a trip in July to the part of the country written about in this book. The trip, in fact, was inspired by this book. So there will be a clue in the near future...

Kat, yes! That whole "increased by 100%" thing bothers me, too. Totally ridiculous. And I love your title suggestion...although I think the current title is a bit catchier.

Liz said...

I haven't visited the blog for a while, so I'm going back to an old post here :).

This cracked me up, because my kids have a picture book that's got these little sliding-door-type-things that you push open to see the picture underneath. I've been laughing at it and showing it to people for years because on the front cover of the book, it says, "Contains over 14 sliding doors!" Yeah, there are 15. Gah!

Kat Heckenbach said...

OK, so my OCD side just had to look up this post because it instantly popped into my head when I was reading last night. The author of the book said, "half a hundred." Wha?? It was the only time I noticed her doing that in the book, but it struck me.

Oh, and btw--a third of a dozen is four, not three. :) (Read the end of your post and the first two comments. Ex-math teacher, can't help myself...)

goodnightmoon said...

Kat Heckenbach - It says nearly a third of a dozen, not a third of a dozen. Going by what the author of that book did, that would make it three.