Almost, About And Approximately Don’t Mean The Same Thing


The Sunday Nation


06 November 2005


On April 26, 1989, former undisputed world boxing champion Mike Tyson was charged with speeding. He was driving at 71 miles per hour (mph) in a section where the speed limit was 30mph. When the story reached the Kenyan media, the leading broadcaster at the time figured that we don’t use miles here. So they checked the conversion tables in the office diary and found that one mile is equal to 1.609km

And therefore on the evening of April 27, the news was read as follows; “World boxing champion Mike Tyson was caught speeding at 114.24km/h on a road where the speed limit is 48.27km/h…” Of course by the time the newscaster finished reading the last digit, viewers had forgotten the value he had started with! It would have been much clearer if the numbers had been rounded off to 114km/h and 50km/h respectively.

Approximating values is an art that is frequently ignored. It is common to hear, say, a government minister reading a statement that goes, “…we are now releasing two billion, three hundred and eighty six million, nine hundred and forty two thousand, seven hundred and twelve shillings to be used in the three thousand, one hundred and eighty five projects…”

If you’ve lost track of those numbers, read the paragraph again, this time with a pen and paper at hand! The rules for estimating values are simple: if the decimal part is five or greater, then take the higher value. Thus 17.5 and 17.8 are both rounded up to 18, while 17.4 goes down to 17.

The same rule applies when dealing with larger numbers. For example, 2,341,471 can be rounded to 2,300,000 (2.3 million) or 2.34 million depending on the number of decimals we wish to show. But how do we decide this?

If the number is going to be read out in a speech (or a news bulletin) then we state only two digits, that is, in the above example we say “two point three million”. If it is a written statement, say a press release, then three digits are enough (i.e., 2.34 million). Anything above three numerals only causes confusion. And now comes the twist in this tale: is 2.34 million “approximately” equal to 2,341,471 or “about” 2,341,471 or “almost” 2,341,471?

When we say “approximately”, we definitely mean that the true value can be greater or less than what is stated. “About” is a bit tricky. Some people insist that it means the true value is greater than the quoted one while others say that it means the same thing as “approximately”.

Most people agree that when we say “almost”, we mean that the stated value is definitely less than the true one. This conclusion probably comes from the popular phrase “I am almost there” meaning I haven’t reached yet.

Thus the statement from the minister should have read; “…we are now releasing almost 2.4 billion, shillings to be used in over three thousand schools…” Suddenly, we get a “feel” of the quantities.

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