Absolutes and ranges

rogersgeorge on March 16th, 2010

Have you ever seen a help-wanted ad for a sales job that said something like “make up to $50,000 or more the first year!” Here’s a cousin to that ad: “…and save at least 10 to 20% of the energy demand and costs…”

How can you have up to something, and then have more? Semantically, you can’t.  Sure, an expression like what’s in that job ad sounds good, but if you’re trying to tell the (ahem) truth, don’t write like that.

Expressions such as “up to,” “at least,” “no more (less) than,” and “as few (many) as” are all absolutes. They describe the end of a range. And the end, dear fellow mathematicians, is a point. So don’t put a range there.

Or don’t use an absolute—stick with the range. That want ad could have said “our best salesperson (note the choice of non-sexist term) made $50,000 last year, but he could have earned more.” (Or less truthfully perhaps, but also semantically correct, “our salespeople frequently earn more than $50,000.”)

How about the energy savings? Write something like “the low average of energy saved is in the 10 to 20% range.”

Getting absolutes and ranges right is a slightly advanced technique because you have to think about what you’re saying. The next post will mention a slightly more advanced technique. You’ll have to think harder.

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