The Less and the More of the Matter : Awareness Can Help One Grasp Language of Comparison


I heard one on the radio the other day that’s going to be hard to beat. If you purchase a given basket of groceries at market X, “You’ll save as much as $18, or more, over other markets.” Now, stop and think about that for just a minute. “As much as $18” means $18 or less, $18 maximum. “Eighteen dollars or more” means at least $18, no less, $18 minimum.

So what are we going to do with “as much as $18 or more?” A rough translation might be: “You’ll save less than $18, but no more, or more, but no less.” Reducing it to the solid informational content of the statement: “You’ll save less than $18, or $18, or more than $18.” Not to put too fine a point on it, if these folks know how much you’re going to save, they’re not telling.

The Language of Comparison

It is, I fear, an increasingly common practice in advertising these days to use the language of comparison in such a way as to say nothing whatever in a way that sounds important. The theory behind it is clear enough. If they said, “You might save some money at our store but we’ve no idea how much,” it would probably not stir up many customers. But why not be more specific and make some solid claim? Well, some do, as in the ads which show Mrs. Jones standing next to her cart telling us precisely how much she personally saved.


But very often these days advertisers don’t make clear claims because they’re afraid of legal action. You can see it in the carefully worded advertisements for cars, and toothpaste, and cleanser, and in the come-ons for these contests where you win $1 million for subscribing to some magazine. We live in an age of class-action suits, consumers’ rights and truth-in-everything. Hence advertisers carefully word their claims so that they cannot be accused of saying anything false. Frequently, this requires not saying much of anything at all.

Negating With Qualifications

They do this, usually, in one of three ways: by using indeterminate comparisons (as much . . . or more), by using weasel words (may, might, could, can, etc.), and by making apparently clear assertions and then negating them with qualifications. I got a letter just the other day that combined all three techniques: “Dear Mr. Tagg, You may have just won as much as one million dollars in cash . . . if CYO9351c2 is the grand prize number.”

One can sympathize with the difficulties of merchants and entrepreneurs wanting to promote their wares without running afoul of the law or of consumer groups. But we would do well to keep in mind that we are consumers not only of groceries and automobiles but of words. Our consumer consciousness should inhibit us from buying nonsense. Those who use words in such a way that they are incapacitated as bearers of truth are selling us a pig in a poke par excellence .