Sunday, September 1, 1996

Let's get rid of fractions. I mean it. Everybody hates them. We don't need them. They're hard to use, misleading, unnecessary, and look dumb when typed.

First, they're incomplete. Face it, fractions are just division problems that haven't been solved yet. If you ask me what's one divided by four, saying 1/4 doesn't answer the question, it just restates the problem. If I asked my son what one and four is, I wouldn't accept 1+4 as an answer. Go ahead and do the math problem. One divided by four is .25. It's the answer to the fraction problem 1/4. I don't mind doing math, but give me finished numbers to work with.

Second, they're misleading. A fraction like 487/1024ths looks a lot bigger than 1/2, but it's not. Quick now, which is the bigger wrench, a 19/32" or a 5/8"? Sure, 19/32" tells me that if you cut an inch into 32 itty-bitty pieces, then counted up 19 of them, it would be the size of this wrench, but who cares? I don't want to do a division problem, I want a wrench a shade smaller than the 5/8" I have. If we didn't use fractions no one would think to make a wrench in such a stupid size. What's the next size down from a 12mm metric wrench? Right, an 11mm. Duh. But don't get me started on metrics. In all the world there are only three recalcitrant backward countries that don’t use metric – Liberia, Myanmar, and the US? Aren’t we in good company. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Fractions.

Third, fractions are hard to use. You can't add them, you can't multiply them, you can't do anything with them without doing a lot of other math first. You've got to get rid of that annoying slash before you can do anything with them. My answer is: why should I? Mostly we use numbers to do arithmetic on, right? The pie takes two-and-three-quarters cups of sugar; we want to make three pies; so how much sugar do we need? We can't just multiply by three like we would if it were two cups even. Oh, no, that would be too easy. The recipe uses fractions (because the author can't do division either, I suppose). So we have to go: "well, three times two cups is six cups, plus three times three quarters is nine quarters, so that's nine divided by four is two and a quarter, so it's two whole cups and a quarter plus, uh, how many was it again?" And God forbid you should have to divide one fraction by another. Quick, try to figure out how much four-fifths of two-and-three-quarters cups is. Huh-uh, your hands are covered in butter and flour, no pencil and paper allowed. Right. Decimals are easier every time.

Fourth, they're limited. They only work with quantities that are one whole number divided by another. How much of that pie is left? Sure, there's nothing hard to understand about ½ - though even then we call it a half, not one-twoth - but what if it's a squosh more than a half? It's nowhere near as much as two-thirds. Maybe it’s 17/32, or more like 129/256. Why do all that division? What's wrong with a decimal like .51? If you don't like decimal points, call it 51%. You can be as precise as you want with decimals. You don't have to wait around until somebody nibbles the pie down to a whole number ratio, you can tot it up quick and eat it yourself.

Fifth, they're unnecessary. You can write a fraction as a decimal and it's easier to understand. We're all used to using decimals already. .51 pies – why, that’s a squosh more than a half. Oh sure, there's the irrational numbers. One-third is precise but you can't write it precisely as a decimal. But you can get it as precise as you need. If percentages are good enough, it's 33%. Need five decimal places? It's .33333. Besides, if we stopped thinking in fractions, we'd stop dealing with irrational numbers in most stuff. Who's going to write a recipe for 2.66666 cups of sugar? They'll write 2.7 and forget it. The pies will even be sweeter.

Sixth, they're hard to read and write. They look really stupid on a word processor. A decimal number, you just write it down: 365.25 days in a year. Any of you have trouble reading that? Now try 3651/4. Is that three thousand, six hundred fifty-one fourths? No. So I have to put a space in it: 365 1/4. Now it looks like two numbers, doesn't it? It is two numbers. We even read it as two numbers: three hundred sixty-five and a quarter. Fine, now I not only have to do the division problem in the fraction, I have to do an addition problem of adding the result to the 365. A year is also (((24*30)/12)*6)+(4+1)+(1/4) days long. I don’t care who how you calculated it - I want the answer. If I ask for a number, give me a number, not an equation.

So if they're incomplete, misleading, hard to use, limited, unnecessary, and ugly, why bother with them? It's not rational to consider a ratio a number. They're nothing but an unfinished division problem; I say let's divide and conquer fractions.

*copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford*