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Grammar Moses: When math and words collide

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If you know anything about me, you probably can imagine the special thrill I'd get when presented with a word problem in math class.

It's like a swirly cone of thought processes that pairs math with words, my favorite combination.

For those who share my enthusiasm for such things, this column is for you.

Playing percentages

Joel Davis of Schaumburg works in the insurance industry. He is rightfully persnickety when it comes to getting math correct in correspondences with clients.

Letters from insurance companies can be a source of joy or consternation, depending on where the decimal point lands.

"Recently my claim department sent a letter to our insured advising them that we were successful in our subrogation efforts," he wrote.

For those of you reaching for the dictionary, "subrogation" is a legal term employed regularly in the insurance industry. It is based on the notion that if Bob crashes his car into Sue's popcorn stand and Sue's insurance company pays Sue for the damage, the insurance company then can sue Bob for the amount it paid Sue.

Back to Joel's story:

"The insured's deductible is \$2,500. We recovered 79 percent from the responsible third party, so our insured gets a pro rata refund of their deductible. My claim adjuster wrote: 'Enclosed is our draft for \$1,975 or 0.79 percent of your deductible.'

"My ninth-grade algebra teacher would say that .79 percent equals .0079 as a decimal. My adjuster's message would imply that .0079 X \$2,500 = \$19.75.

"I thanked her for the letter, but advised her to be careful where she places that decimal point."

Thank you for showing your math, Joel. Here is mine:

If \$1,975 were .79 percent of the person's deductible, the deductible would have been \$250,000. One can only assume that person was insuring something really valuable.

Time as a continuum

Mike Yerly, the director of development at St. Isidore School in Bloomingdale, wonders whether we got it right when we wrote: "Less than three hours before Elzbieta Plackowska is accused of stabbing to death her son and daughter, she took the children to church."

"I'm thinking 'fewer' is correct vs. 'less than,' no?" Mike said.

I see two ways of looking at this one. There are 24 distinct hours in a day. You could count one hour, two hours, three hours. Or you could look at time as a continuum (or even a volume, as in gallons of gasoline) rather than something split into units.

"Three hours" is a span of time, which would be described as more or less rather than more or fewer.

You'll get considerable argument on both sides of this one, but I'm confident our reporter was fine in describing it in terms of a span of time.

Twice or thrice?

Bob Christensen of Mount Prospect brought to my attention a story we'd written that contained this sentence:

"One of his biggest goals is not to repeat the same mistake twice."

Bob's take on this is that it is OK to repeat the same mistake once -- but not twice.

Agreed. Doing something wrong three times sounds a lot like a habit.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbau-mann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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