The Problem With Using Language Imprecisely

Take a journey across London on public transport and it’s likely you’ll come across an appeal poster from one of the major UK charities on the bus or train interior. Very often these posters quote some statistic or other in order to get your attention. The image above shows a poster for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children, which states that a child contacts Childline every twenty seconds. Now, the NSPCC might think it’s sufficiently obvious that they are quoting an average and not making a statement of fact to not need to say ‘on average’. But regardless of whether people realise it’s an average or not, without the prefix ‘on average’ they are making a statement that simply isn’t true. Not even in the ‘small print’ is it made clear that they are quoting an average.

An average is usually means the sum of a list of numbers divided by the size of the list. In this case the NSPCC has taken the total number of instances of children contacting Childline and divided it by some specific length of time – a week, a month or year. If these instances were evenly distributed over time, then it would work out that a child would contact Childline every twenty seconds. But they aren’t/weren’t evenly distributed over time, which is why the statement on the NSPCC poster is false.

If omitting ‘on average’ didn’t have the effect of making whatever situation being referred to sound even more tragic, urgent and terrible, which in turn probably leads to increased donations, then I would agree with those who would no doubt accuse me of indulging in pointless pendantry. Try it, which of the following affects you more, which one stirs up the most empathy and sadness:

On average a child contacts Childline every 20 seconds.

A child contacts Childline every 20 seconds.

I’ve seen at least a few other charity appeal posters (see addendum) state an average as if it were a fact as well, but it’s not just charities doing it. You’ll encounter this quite often in the media and on TV too. Only last week I heard a TV presenter say “one in every hundred children has Tourettes”. This is not true. If you went out and rounded up one hundred children you might find none of them have Tourette’s, or several of them have. If you did that again the next day with a different set of children you’d probably get a different result. In order for her statement to be true she should have said “on average one in every…”

Yesterday I read an article in the Metro ‘newspaper’ (by and large an amplification device for government nonsense) that said: “advanced cyber attacks hit businesses once every three minutes.” Once again, this isn’t true. A true statement would be to say that on average advanced cyber attacks hit businesses once every three minutes.”

So, omitting the a-word is not a trivial matter as we can see. It’s the difference between making a true statement and making a false statement.

If some charities are doing this consciously and deliberately because they believe that saying “three children die of starvation every day in…” has more emotional impact on potential donators than saying “on average three children die of…”, then we might reasonably assume they do so because it has lead to increased donations. If this is the case, then having more money to work with is obviously good for them, but the means by which they have increased their funding is rather dishonest; which is a shame because it needn’t have been but for saying two words: “on average”.

Of course, the more urgent and tragic the situation sounds, and the more emotionally affected people are by it the more donations the charity is likely to receive. Whether that’s necessarily and always a good thing, practically-speaking, depends on how effective the charity is at alleviating/solving the problem its dedicated to – if a bad charity is getting more donations then good ones are probably getting less.

I wonder if charities are taking liberties with language because they believe the end justifies the means, i.e. that it’s okay to mislead more people into donating because their motivations for doing so are virtuous. Whenever you believe that your actions are aligned with the ‘greater good’ it’s very easy to fall into the trap of justifying morally-questionable means with perceived virtuous ends.


Addendum: here’s another example I came across a few days after writing this post.


And another

IMG_20130412_081525Here’s another (19/11/2013)



  1. There’s an apocryphal story about Bono stopping in the middle of Sunday Bloody Sunday or some song, and clapped a slow clap. Then he said into the microphone, “Clap! Clap! Clap! Every time I clap, another child dies of malnourishment!” and someone from the audience shouts “Then stop clapping, ya bastard!”.


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