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Quantitative versus qualitative

When you describe how much of something there is you can do so in two different ways - quantitatively or qualitatively.

We are going to need five apples to make this pie.

This sentence is a quantitative description - it describes a quantity in terms of how many ‘units’ of it there are. In this case, the units are ‘apples’, and we need five units (apples) to make the apple pie.

I think we’re going to need a lot more milk in this pie.

This sentence is an example of a qualitative description. It describes a quantity without being precise with regards to ‘how much’. How much is a ‘lot more’ milk? A few teaspoons more? A few litres? A few tanker loads? Who knows! Qualitative descriptions don’t specify an exact amount.

In the lip advertisement above, the advertisers could have made a qualitative claim, rather than their quantitative one of 212% improvement in lip fullness. Making a quantitative claim about an abstract thing like ‘lip fullness’ is usually meaningless. A more meaningful claim would be to claim something like:

Significantly increase lip fullness

‘Significantly’ is a qualitative description - it doesn’t mean an exact amount. ‘Significant’ means that the change is enough to be noticed (which is what consumers buying this product would want).

Advertising and politics are two areas where qualitative language is used a lot to the advantage of the advertiser or the politician. Advertisers and politicians spend a lot of their time making claims about their products or their policies. Often though, they don’t want you to actually think too deeply about what they’re saying or claiming. For instance, take this politician’s speech:

... in my past five years as leader, I have increased employment. I have also made sure that the price of petrol has only risen a small amount ...

The politician has made two qualitative claims in this part of the speech. First, they’ve said that they’ve increased employment. But by how much? This is the thing about qualitative descriptions - they’re open to interpretation about how much they actually mean. Perhaps if you actually did the research, you could come up with a quantitative description of the employment situation:

In the past five years, employment has risen from 95.0% to 95.05%.

Wow! A 0.05% increase in employment levels. So the politician hasn’t really lied - but they’ve been very misleading. A 0.05% change is basically negligible - really, employment levels have stayed the same.

What about the second part of the politician’s claim - that petrol prices have only risen a small amount? What’s a ‘small amount’? Everyone has their own opinion about what a ‘small amount’ is. The politician’s idea might be very different to what your idea is. They might think that a ‘small’ rise is a 40% increase in petrol prices, whereas you may think that anything less than a 10% rise would be considered a ‘small’ rise.

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