Logic of Language

To Estimate or Not To Estimate

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I was trying to explain the difference between my job and my better half’s job to my daughter when she pointed out that the company I worked for was quite small.

“There’s only about nine people at your work, isn’t there?” She said.

“Yes. There’s ten.” I replied.

“Well,” she said, fixing a beady eye on me and crossing her arms. “I said ‘about nine’, didn’t I?”

“Yes, darling. You did. I was just pointing out that there were exactly ten.”

“And does it make a huge difference?” He arms were folding themselves tighter and tighter and her eyes becoming beadier.

“No.” I said. “Not really. But if you’re giving someone an estimate, you would usually round it up. In this case to ten.”

“Really.” It was not a question.

“Yes. Really. You wouldn’t say :’There are nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty somethings’ if you thought there were about a million somethings, would you?”

“I would.”

“Well that’s silly, darling.”

“Ask me how many minions Gru has in Despicable Me.”

I fought back a sigh. “How many minions does Gru have?”

“Nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty… one.”

“Exactly?”

“No. About nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty one.”

“Well that’s about a million, isn’t it?”

“Yes. But it’s also about nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty one.”

“This is true, darling. But isn’t it easier to just say, about a million?”

“No.”

“OK.”

There was a bit of a silence.

Then she said: “How many dads are there in the world?”

The question was asked without particular menace, but after a quick calculation I’d worked out that there were a lot of potential replacements for me.

“About two and a half billion.”

Another silence.

“And how did you work that out?”

“Well, there’s about seven billion people in the world…”

“Are there exactly seven billion?”

“No, of course not.”

“HA! Then why not say ten billion people? Are you an idiot? You’ve just told me that if you’re estimating something you should round it up. And now you say seven!”

She was not interested in the rest of my calculations.

She is about twenty years old. But exactly eleven.