Look up “negligible” in a poor dictionary, and you’ll discover that it means “small”. Except that it doesn’t. What it actually means, as you can see by looking in Chambers or the Oxford Dictionary, is “so small as to be not worth considering”. That is quite a different proposition.
I mention all this because in a recent local consultation on a proposal for a new housing development of 1,400 homes, a new school, and the replacement of the current supermarket by a “substantial superstore, not just a local outlet”, some information (I use the term loosely) was given regarding traffic. All this, said the developers, will have a “negligible” effect on traffic levels.
At the moment, the traffic in the area at school opening and closing times, and during the rush hour, is dreadful. For example:
From where I live to the nearest station is a ten minute walk. By bus it takes at least 20 minutes at those times.
The traffic is so dreadful that some drivers decide it would be better (for them) to drive on the wrong side of the road. Both my wife and I have been nearly run over by cars driving at speed around one of the traffic islands.
I once made the mistake of deciding to drive to the local hospital. It usually takes 20 minutes to walk, or three minutes to drive. On that occasion I got stuck at the end of my road because the weight of traffic meant that I was unable to join the long line of cars. I was also unable to turn around or reverse because of a combination of cars blocking the road, cars parked illegally on both sides of the road, and cars behind me. I was stuck there for an hour.
This is all quite normal, so when the developers say that the additional amount traffic would be negligible, I am taking that as an acknowledgement that the current amount of traffic is already at untenable levels. After all, “negligible” has to be a relative rather than an absolute term, as I think may be demonstrated by the following analogy:
If there was a pile-up on the M1 motorway which resulted in 300 deaths, that would make the front pages of newspapers all over the world. But if a nuclear war were to break out, resulting in 100 million deaths all over the world, but “only” 300 in Britain, people would say that the effects of the war in this country were “negligible”.
When people are writing about quantities, it is much more accurate, more authoritative, less confusing and more objective, to use numbers and percentages. Rather than tell us that the increase in traffic as a result of this development would be “negligible”, it would be much better if they told us instead the answers to these questions:
How many extra cars will there be on the road, according to their research?
What percentage increase is that on what there is now?
What will be the effect of the increased traffic on noise levels, in terms of decibels?
What will be the effect of the increased traffic on pollution levels?
Have all those figures been independently verified?
Only when these kind of questions are answered will anyone be in a position to make the value judgement as to whether the increase in traffic will be “negligible”.
And it is for the people likely to be affected by the increased traffic to decide whether or not it is “negligible”, not the people promoting it.
So, if you are a writer, here are a few tips:
Don’t use “negligible” as a synonym for “small”.
Don’t make value judgements without making it clear that you are doing so.
Use numbers wherever possible.