Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

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Negotiation
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Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Negotiation » Thu May 15, 2014 5:23 pm UTC

In this report a man who can speak 32 languages is interviewed. The article describes him as a man "who is comfortable speaking almost three dozen [languages]." This use of "almost" crops up again and again in articles, and it blows my mind why it is so prevalent.

I understand that they want to round up in order to make the case more impressive. However, they are in essence rounding up slightly and focusing on the fact that the actual case is lower than that. Writing that the man speaks "over 30 languages" would be a much better description, as it focuses on the on the impressive size of the man's knowledge of languages, rather than the shortcomings, that is, 32 being less than three dozen.

This is only beaten by journalists who round up like this without clarifying that they have done so.

Am I being pedantic, or do others feel the same?

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Adam H
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Adam H » Thu May 15, 2014 6:40 pm UTC

I'm not sure I prefer "over 30" to "almost 3 dozen". If I notice phrases like that they usually all annoy me, because I'd rather hear the exact number*. Otherwise it just distracts me and I'll spend time wondering what the actual number is. If I hear "almost 3 dozen", I'll calculate the midpoint of 3 dozen and 2 dozen and assume it's between that and 3 dozen.

And IMO "almost 3 dozen" or "almost 35" actually does make it seem higher than "over 30" because I generally focus on the number more than the preceding word.

*Except for large or unwieldy numbers - "Over 1 million" is probably better than "1,023,456".
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Aiwendil » Fri May 16, 2014 4:19 pm UTC

In the case of a person who speaks 32 languages, the order of my preferences would be:

1. 'thirty-two languages'
2. 'over thirty languages'
3. 'almost three dozen languages'

But that's because 32 is closer to 30 than it is to 36. If he or she spoke 34 languages, I'd prefer 'almost three dozen' to 'over thirty'.

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mathmannix
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby mathmannix » Mon May 19, 2014 2:32 pm UTC

What about "over 29" ? 32 is still closer to 29 than to 36...
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Prefanity
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Prefanity » Tue May 27, 2014 9:17 am UTC

In the interest of concision and as a former newspaper copy editor, I would advise writing "32 languages." I have no idea why anyone would write anything else in a similar situation. It might be useful to write "over X amount" for larger numbers, but I can't think of a justification for ever writing "almost X amount." That said, I don't think journalists tend to use that last formation either.

Edit: Also, AP Style suggests rounding numbers when the specific number isn't important to the story or is subject to change; for example, 6,135 could become 6,000, or $3,345,091 could become $3 million. Of course, in this age of internet journalism, who knows who's following AP Style and who isn't.

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mathmannix
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby mathmannix » Wed May 28, 2014 1:16 pm UTC

I think the best thing to do, which I have seen numerous times, is to state the exact number the first time, and then a rounded-type number ("over 30" or "almost 3 dozen") in subsequent use. Not really necessary for 32, but I just read an article this morning which mentioned the Washington Monument's 896 steps in the first paragraph, and referred to "nearly nine hundred" in a later paragraph. This way, people who care can know the exact number, but the article doesn't get bogged down with the same precise number mentioned more than once.
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Whizbang
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Whizbang » Wed May 28, 2014 1:49 pm UTC

Up to 32 or more.

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mathmannix
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby mathmannix » Thu May 29, 2014 2:42 pm UTC

Whizbang wrote:Up to 32 or more.

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Yablo
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Re: Pet Peeve: Journalists' use of "almost"

Postby Yablo » Tue Jul 29, 2014 10:15 pm UTC

In the case of "32 languages", I very much prefer to see the actual number instead of approximating. It seems silly to me to spend extra keystrokes (or breath, in the case of spoken words). I suppose it ultimately doesn't matter in this case because once I know the actual number is 32, that's how my mind is going to read it. I'll see "over 30", or "almost three dozen", and my mind will automatically make the edit. Still, it would be nice if I didn't have to do that.

Also, it's interesting to note that you'd never catch a journalist saying "fewer than 35 languages" in such a case. Given that it takes more effort to write "almost three dozen" than to simply write a two digit number, it really does seem like an attempt at making the story more sensational.
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