Strange phrase

Sunday 20 March 2005 at 5:33 pm | In Articles | 2 Comments

Heard on BBC Radio 4 news last night:

    If Wales hadn’t beaten Ireland in the rugby match then it’s mathematically possible that France could have won the Grand Slam

This use of the phrase mathematically possible to mean a small probability is not uncommon, particularly in sport. And it’s not confined to the UK as Mathematically Possible shows. It would be interesting to find out how this phrase came to have this strange meaning.


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  1. I’m not sure that ‘mathematically possible’ is used to mean ‘having a small probability’ (suggesting an upper bound), but rather ‘having a non-zero probability’ (suggesting, as it should, a lower bound); the problem arises when you miss the implicit adverb ‘merely’ (for which you can’t be blamed: few have an ear acute enough to pick up the tacit), as in ‘merely mathematically possible’. Just a thought.

    Comment by HF — Wednesday 6 April 2005 3:12 pm #

  2. I first noticed the usage in the context of minor-party US presidential campaigns, to distinguish those candidates who are on the ballot in enough States to win the election from those who could not win even if they get every vote in those States where they are on the ballot.

    Comment by Anton Sherwood — Wednesday 6 April 2005 7:07 pm #

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