A million times smaller?


I don’t know about you, but I always get annoyed with phrases like “a million times smaller”. It has been one of my bugbears for many years. Now you can get annoyed by it, too – and perhaps change the way you do things, if you are a writer too. (Or maybe just get annoyed with me for being too pedantic!)

So, what is it about phrases like “A gold atom is a million times smaller than the width of a human hair” that gets me so riled? Well, it’s grammatically and logically dubious. The width of a human hair is about 70 microns (µm), or 0.070 mm. So … a million times smaller than that? It doesn’t really make sense when you think about it. I am fully aware that we all know what the statistic means: it means “A gold atom is one-millionth the width of a human hair.” So why not just say that? It is unambiguous and logically sound – and it even has fewer words!

Here are some other examples: “The Moon is 390 times closer to Earth than the Sun.” and “The gravitational force on an object twice as close is four times as strong.” 

‘Twice as close’?? Does anyone else get annoyed with this sort of thing? Anyone think I should not be wasting my time on it? Well, I don’t waste my time when I’m writing – I just think in that way automatically, after years of being riled! Any thoughts gratefully appreciated.


I will try to explain my annoyance with an example … of a comparison between the lengths of a plane (50m)  and a bicycle (1m) …

First, a couple of commonly-used but, I think, annoying ways of expressing a comparison: 

“The plane is fifty times bigger than the car.” (incorrect – see below)

“The bicycle is fifty times smaller than the plane.” (annoyingly incorrect)

Now for a few correct ways: 

“The plane is 49 times longer than the bicycle.”
[longer by 49 times the bicycle’s length] 50m = 1m + (49 x 1m)

or “The plane is about fifty times longer than the bicycle.”

“The plane is fifty times as long as the bicycle.”
50m = 50 x 1m

“The bicycle is one-fiftieth the size of the plane.”
1m = 1/50 x 50m

So, for the gold atom and the human hair, I would probably write “A gold atom is one-millionth as wide as a human hair” or “Gold atoms are tiny: a human hair is about a million times as big” or even “You could fit about a million gold atoms across the width of a human hair”.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Christopher Hodgson says:

    Hurrah! The Telegraph this morning managed ‘two thirds smaller’. The weekend papers were full of ‘times smaller’. Couldn’t persuade the wife to argue the point so turned to the internet. Result! Thank you. You are now my authority on this subject.

  2. Jack says:

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Glad there is someone out there who feels the same way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *