If I tell you I have hundreds of dollars hidden under my mattress, maybe you will pity me. Obviously, having some amount between $100 and $999 will not get me far.
But suppose I tell you I have thousands. What are you to make of that? I have some amount between $1,000 and $999,999? So I’m somewhere between being a pauper and a millionaire? The information is not very informative.
In English, the word “thousands” is not analogous to “hundreds”. The former encompasses three orders of magnitude, whereas the latter only one.
I constantly trip over press reports like this one seen in the headline of a New York Times story, reporting on the aftermath of a hurricane.
The article informs us that as a result of Hurricane Michael passing through some days before, blowing down power lines, 371,000 customers were still without electricity, after 2.3 million had it restored. The word “customers” refers mainly to houses or apartments (where there’s an electric meter, count one customer). But “thousands” in the headline obviously means people. If we estimate an average of three people per home, we get over a million folks.
So what proportion of these million unfortunate denizens will be waiting weeks for their electricity? Somewhere in the range of less than 1%, to almost 100%, according to the headline. Could you be any more specific, please, editors?1 (The article itself does not answer this question.)
If you write news for a living — or write almost anything — here’s my suggestion. When counting in the thousands, keep your approximation within one order of magnitude as follows.
- If the amount is 10K or less, say “between one thousand and ten thousand”. (Or maybe “a few thousand” is an appropriate estimate.)
- If the amount is between 10K – 100K, say “tens of thousands”.
- For amounts 100K – 1 million say “hundreds of thousands”.
The same logic applies to “millions”, “billions” (or British: “milliards”), and “trillions”. Each of those words encompasses three orders of magnitude.
If I tell you my investments are valued in the millions of dollars, will you consider me modestly well-off — like tens of millions of other Americans, who have assets worth between $1 million and $10 million? Or might you think I’m on the verge of joining the Forbes Magazine annual list of billionaires? I’ll leave that ambiguity to be addressed another day.
- Or suppose we give the New York Times editors the benefit of the doubt, and assume they mean “thousands” strictly to refer to a number consisting of four figures, the way “hundreds” is three figures. If so, only about 1% of the people will be waiting weeks. So why the sensational headline, editors? Are you blowing things out of proportion, or what?!