02 January 2005

to the (public) editor

In the hopes of having someone actually read what I write, I've been writing to public@nytimes.com instead of letters@nytimes.com. Unfortunately, the first thing I sent probably made me look like an idiot and a pedant at the same time.
From: me
To: public@nytimes.com
Date: Aug 17, 2004

Dear Mr. Okrent,

I know there are plenty of more important things out there, but do you think you could get the Times to stop misusing the term "exponential growth?" The common mistake is to use it to indicate rapidly increasing growth, as in "Charters are expected to grow exponentially under the new federal education law" from today's article Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal.

Actually, exponential growth (or decay) means growing (or shrinking) by a rate that is a percentage. So increasing the number of schools by a steady 1% per year is exponential growth, but a sudden one-shot increase in the number of charter schools is probably not.

If every occurence of "exponentially" were replaced by "rapidly" then in almost every case the desired meaning would be better communicated.

aram harrow

And the reply,
Dear Aram Harrow,

Maybe I've overlooked something here but the dictionary definition seems appropriate for use this way in the article.

2 entries found for exponential. To select an entry, click on it.
exponential:exponential function
Main Entry: ex·po·nen·tial
Pronunciation: ek-sp&-'nen-ch&l

Function: adjective
1 : of or relating to an exponent
2 : involving a variable in an exponent <10x is an exponential expression>
3 : expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function; especially : characterized by or being an extremely rapid increase (as in size or extent)
- ex·po·nen·tial·ly /-'nench-(&-)lE/ adverb

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Instead of explaining why the dictionary is wrong (and why it's possible for dictionaries to be wrong), I gave up.

Update: This Dilbert strip sums up the situation pretty well (thanks to Mark Dowling for sending it to me). But whatever, I'm still right.

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