# A fraction of

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
Coal, which generates about half the power in the United States, is the nation's most abundant fuel and costs a fraction of cleaner-burning natural gas.

"...and costs a fraction of cleaner-burning..." WHAT?

Thanks...

• #### vachecow

##### Senior Member
It would be clearer it they said "and coal costs a fraction of what natural gas costs. "

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
What percentage does that "a fraction of" part mean? What is the comparison?

#### JamesM

##### Senior Member
What percentage does that "a fraction of" part mean? What is the comparison?
It is a vague term, zorspas. It doesn't really specify the fraction. It could be 1/4th, 1/5th, 1/10th, 9/10ths, or some other fraction.

If someone wants to indicate that it is on the lower end of possible fractions, they usually say, "a small fraction". This, too, is vague, but at least it narrows it down to something less than 1/2 as an assumption of the "fraction" being referred to.

I've never really understood the use of this phrase. It seems so incredibly vague.

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
Thanks a lot JamesM. Yes it seems weird to me, also. This vague expression from a news on Reuter's web page confused me. Thanks again for explaining it. I would like to give a link, but I'm not allowed to do so. But if you write "Climate fears, costs threaten coal-fired power plans" to google, the first one is the news.

#### elroy

##### Imperfect Mod
While "a fraction" in contexts like this one could technically refer to any fractional amount, I believe that it is safe to assume that it is less than one half, probably much less.

But I agree with James that clearer terms are to be recommended.

#### Packard

##### Senior Member
"A fraction" falls in the same category as "stuff" as a word that is sufficiently non specific as to be nearly worthless.

"A fraction" as noted above by JamesM, could be any fraction. It could be 999/1,000ths or 1/1,000th. Almost a meaningless phrase.

The same with "stuff". "He had some really great "stuff". An almost meaningless word. I would substitute either of these with something more specific. If I could not come up with something more specific, I would not bother to write it at all.

#### Harry Batt

##### Senior Member
Lookikng at the naked words, "fraction of the cost," you do have a modified, fraction, which means nothing because you can't measure it in dollar terms. However, when you have two products A and B which are of about the same quality and product A advertised that they are selling "at a fraction of the cost" of product B, then fractions worth is psychological. The buyer just doesn't stop to think of the actual dollars. In the pharmaceutical field I hear it all the time, "generic medications are selling for a fraction of the cost of name meds."

#### AWordLover

##### Senior Member
The term "a fraction of" does not refer to any particular fraction and has the simple meaning of "less" or "much less" in your sample sentence. It costs much less to use coal than natural gas to generate any specified amount of power.

This term is no more vague than much less.

#### JamesM

##### Senior Member
Not to nitpick, but the fact that it can mean simply "less" or "much less" (a point I agree with) does mean that it's more vague than "much less." Point taken, though, that "much" is not quantifiable in "much less".

#### elroy

##### Imperfect Mod
Indeed, I think a lot of this discussion consists of unnecessary nitpicking.

As I said in my earlier post, technically the fraction could be 9/10, but in reality that's not what is intended, and we all know that.

If someone tells me, "My brother bought a ticket to Europe for \$500, but I got mine for a fraction of that amount," I am not going to think, "Hmmm...maybe he got his for \$499." I am going to know he got his for significantly less than his brother. Yes, it's vague, but it's not entirely unspecific. I agree with the comment that in practice it pretty much means "much less," regardless of the literal meaning.

#### Packard

##### Senior Member
Indeed, I think a lot of this discussion consists of unnecessary nitpicking.

As I said in my earlier post, technically the fraction could be 9/10, but in reality that's not what is intended, and we all know that.

If someone tells me, "My brother bought a ticket to Europe for \$500, but I got mine for a fraction of that amount," I am not going to think, "Hmmm...maybe he got his for \$499." I am going to know he got his for significantly less than his brother. Yes, it's vague, but it's not entirely unspecific. I agree with the comment that in practice it pretty much means "much less," regardless of the literal meaning.

I recall buying a mini-muffin (one bite finishes this thing) at a local store. The label said, "Just 40 calories per serving". They listed the mini-muffin as "4 servings". (This would be a bad joke, if it were not true.)

All of which is to say, that in the hands of marketing people, "a fraction of the cost" does not mean anything at all.

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
As I said in my earlier post, technically the fraction could be 9/10, but in reality that's not what is intended, and we all know that.
Nope, I just found it out.

Thanks...

#### elroy

##### Imperfect Mod
I do not deny that language can be manipulated to suit the needs of advertisers and the like. In fact, in my first post I agreed that clearer wording would be best.

However, I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to evaluate a phrase solely based on its semantics without taking pragmatics into account - the way the phrase is generally used by most people, and for what purposes.

Consider the phrase "more or less," as in the following exchange:

-Are you done with the project?
-More or less.

Now, does this literally mean that you are either "more than done" or "less than done" with the project? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it? How can you be "more than done with the project"? If this phrase were to be interpreted on a strictly literal basis, we would quickly conclude that it should not be used. However, we all know what is actually meant by "more or less," and it's important to explain that to those who ask about the usage.

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
I recall buying a mini-muffin (one bite finishes this thing) at a local store. The label said, "Just 40 calories per serving". They listed the mini-muffin as "4 servings". (This would be a bad joke, if it were not true.)

All of which is to say, that in the hands of marketing people, "a fraction of the cost" does not mean anything at all.
That's unbelievable.

#### JamesM

##### Senior Member
That's unbelievable.
I'm not sure if you mean you do not believe it or you are shocked to hear it. In case it's the former, I'll back Packard up on that. I see this kind of thing regularly on labels of serving size and calories in the U.S. Amazing, but true.

As for analyzing it semantically rather than looking at it pragmatically, I'm sorry to say I've experienced several instances in my life, I would dare to say dozens, where "a fraction of", when researched, actually did mean something like "9/10ths" and the phrase was being used to inflate the impression of savings. This includes everything from cleaning products to multi-million-dollar computer hardware purchases. From a pragmatic point of view, my experience tells me to treat any claim of "a fraction of" with skepticism.

#### panjandrum

##### Lapsed Moderator
"A fraction of" has an idiomatic rather than arithmetic sense. That is what the advertisers and others generally rely on. It is the idiomatic version that's behind Elroy's comment that he expects it to mean less than half. It is, perhaps, the expectation that the numerator of the fraction is one and the denominator is more than one: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6 etc.

In practice, the fraction could indeed be a proper fraction, in which the numerator is more than one, but still less than the denominator - anything up to 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, 5/6 etc.

More subversively, but within the arithmetic definitions, it could even be an improper fraction, in which the numerator is more than the denominator - in which case the sky's the limit - 3/2, 4/3, 23/5, etc.

#### zorspas

##### Senior Member
I'm not sure if you mean you do not believe it or you are shocked to hear it. In case it's the former, I'll back Packard up on that. I see this kind of thing regularly on labels of serving size and calories in the U.S. Amazing, but true.
I mean the latter one, don't worry . After being the USA and seeing a warning on a coffee pot that says "Do not pour towards people" and another one on a washing-machine, "DO NOT put any person in this washer" I can believe anything on this world . Those kind of warnings are extremely unusual here. Because if you put warnings like those people would think they are being considered as stupid and consequently you sell nothing. By the way coffee pot one is my favourite

Thanks...

#### Marty10001

##### Senior Member
Coal, which generates about half the power in the United States, is the nation's most abundant fuel and costs a fraction of cleaner-burning natural gas.I think "fraction" works well here and I would not change. The term has no mathematical value but it points to significant difference. "I earned a fraction of my bosses salary but I worked much harder."

#### AWordLover

##### Senior Member
I'm going to try to re-enforce elroy's comments that the expression "a fraction of" is not to be taken literally. Let us consider what we can infer from the absence of typical modifiers for this.

a fraction of - usually much less, sometimes just less
a small fraction of - much less
a tiny fraction of - much less
a very tiny fraction of - much less, maybe much much less

less
much less
very much less
much much less

These are all vague terms for the idea that there is less of this than that.

#### Packard

##### Senior Member
In these forums we are in the craft of communicating. If communicating is your goal, you should avoid vague phrases and point them out when you see them.

So if the original writer was truly interested in communicating he would have written it costs 35% of (or whatever the actual percentage is)...

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