Pet Peeve from a Word Weenie: Exponentially

I know the language changes. We’re losing the subjunctive. “Hopefully” is hopeless. And words that have specific technical meanings take on new meanings in less-technical contexts. But I’m wondering: any other math teachers out there flinch when people use exponentially to mean dramatically?

Here are some examples from a quick search on the New York Times website. Some are clearly figurative. Others we can’t be sure. But a scary thing is that I got over 4700 hits for the last 30 days:

With HBO filming the Jets for its annual training camp series, with Ryan’s pronouncements growing bolder in his second season, with expectations that have grown exponentially, Jenkins and the Jets feel a greater sense of urgency.
—Greg Bishop, July 19

Regulation is more necessary than ever before because the severity of harm that can be caused by human technology is exponentially increasing.
—Dennis Montana, comment, July 26

This one has a curious juxtaposition of drama and the exponential function:

As night falls across the country, the number of calls increases dramatically, and their drama increases exponentially.
—Ashley Gilbertson, Lens, July 30, about a suicide hot-line.

This one may actually use the word correctly, even if we disagree:

…if we do not plan an energy descent plan to deal with the approaching decline in hydrocarbon production, the economy WILL collapse rather than gradually decline. We cannot have an exponentially growing economy without exponentially growing hydrocarbon production. Those days are history.
—Joshua M, July 26, 2010 (in a comment)

I bet there are even better examples. Anyone?

Author: Tim Erickson

Math-science ed freelancer and sometime math and science teacher. Currently working on various projects.

One thought on “Pet Peeve from a Word Weenie: Exponentially”

  1. Months later, I just want to add two things–

    a) When *I* say “exponentially”, I *mean* it–it wouldn’t even occur to me to use it in the “dramatic” way you have illustrated. I will be on the lookout for it from now on.

    2) Another battle we are losing, I fear, is “beg the question.” Every time I hear it used incorrectly, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard [another soon-to-be obsolete expression, no doubt] to my ears and I struggle to re-educate the masses (much against their will).

    le *sigh*

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