linguistics and lexicography Love English

“Save up to 35% on your fuel bills!” Some mysterious uses of the preposition ‘up to’

In the run-up to the Olympics, several athletes were signed up to appear in advertisements for the products of one of the sponsors. One athlete was lucky, or unlucky, enough to be assigned a well-known anti-dandruff shampoo, and is now, declares the advert, “100% cool, 100% confident and up to 100% flake-free*”. (Forget that asterisk for a moment.)

It’s the sneaky little preposition up to that caught my attention here. The claim “up to 100% flake-free” is surely meaningless, even in the strange marginal universe in which flakes of dandruff are counted and recorded. What percentage would be acceptable to someone with a dandruff-related problem? And doesn’t the word ‘flake-free’ denote a complete absence of flakes, anyway? You wouldn’t expect products labelled ‘sugar-free’ or ‘gluten-free’ to contain any sugar, or gluten, at all. The adjective (or suffix) ‘free’ is not normally gradable.

The internet offers a huge amount of discussion on the use of so-called ‘up to claims’ in advertising. According to studies of consumer behaviour conducted on people who had money in their high yield savings account, most people believe that if they are offered, say, “up to 47%” savings in energy costs after installing new windows, then this is approximately what they will get. Thus the Federal Trade Commission advises marketers that up to claims should be used only when it can be proved that customers “are likely to achieve the maximum results promised under normal circumstances”.

Ah, “under normal circumstances”. This is the crux of the matter. In the shampoo advert, the small print aims to tell us exactly what “up to 100% flake-free” means. That asterisk takes us to the words, almost too small to read:

*Removes up to 100% visible flakes seen at 2 ft. With regular use.

So now we know. It still doesn’t make much sense, but the advertisers have covered themselves with painful redundancy: visible flakes, seen at two feet. The moral: don’t get too close to a potential dandruff sufferer, or at least not with your eyes open.

Of course, this sense of up to is perfectly standard and is often used quite ‘neutrally’ to state a maximum amount or level, as in the information that a female silverfish can lay up to 100 eggs and live for up to three and a half years. Often, though, there is a point being made, a suggestion that the reader should exclaim “Wow! That much? That long? As big as that?”

The ‘Feedback’ column of the New Scientist has often voiced objections to up to claims, especially when used by the telecoms industry. For example, Virgin Media are reported to have promised “up to 50 megabit broadband speeds”, and then confusingly described this as “infinitely quick”.

A trawl through the New Scientist archive reveals that they themselves – inevitably – use up to in this rather vague way, in reports both on potentially beneficial scientific developments and on research that has dangerous implications.

These examples state the best possible results of a scientific discovery:

A type of fridge that can stay cool for up to 10 days without any power has been developed.

Combined with a conventional fan, the wind engines could increase microchip cooling by up to 250%.

A material that stores up to 40 per cent more energy and is less likely to overheat could be the answer.

But notice the use of modal verbs and phrases like can, might, could, and is less likely, which add to the essential vagueness of up to. Like advertisers, the New Scientist needs to qualify its statements, partly because its eye-catching reports are based on professional articles that were probably more sober in their claims (as well as being less accessible to a general readership).

The next examples report on more negative findings, or speculate on their worst possible effects; they are full of doom and dire predictions.

Up to 900 species of land bird at risk by 2050 [headline]

Northern Siberia’s thaw lakes are belching out up to five times as much methane as previously thought.

Air pollution is knocking up to nine years off some people in the UK, according to a new report.

Flooding in the country is set to increase by up to 40 per cent this century as global temperatures rise, the latest climate models suggest.

I’m sure you can think of other phrases with the same weight of implied meaning as up to. According to “the experts”, summarizes the New Scientist, limiting global warming is an achievable goal, and “could cost as little as one meal out, per person, per year”.  How much is that, exactly, and how does it compare with the length of the proverbial piece of string?

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Gill Francis


  • That’s an interesting read Gill. I’m glad that advertisers are brought to heel about how they use “up to”, but I wonder if there are any other up-tos that affect our lives? (Judges in courts might sentence a murdererer to “at least 25 years” in jail, but they don’t yet use “up to”.)

  • You’re right – they often say ‘a minimum of 25 years’, but not ‘up to’ as far as I know, and certainly not ‘as little as’.

    There have been cases outside advertising, where ‘up to’ claims are challenged. Earlier this month, the Babyjabs website was ordered to remove their claim that the 3-in-1 MMR injection may be causing “up to 10%” of autism in children in the UK. (Source: BBC News Health). It was actually the Advertising Standards Authority that made this ruling, though I’m not sure why this sort of website is in their remit. I’m glad someone does it, as these ‘Jabs’ websites often communicate a very biased view of reality.

  • “up to”; here’s a thing: a writer in the Guardian Blog, Occam’s Corner, says “A-level results not up to scratch?”:
    “scratch”, a wonderfully useful nebulous upper limit. Someone else complains that their “wireless broadband not up to scratch”. That’s the way the consumer complains about advertisers expectations not being met, they don’t have to quote figures, they know what “normal circumstances” are, and if the claims don’t “cut the mustard” they just say “not up to scratch”: are the claims of the shampoo advertisement “up to scratch”?

  • I love all this stuff, but in my day to day teaching in Mexico it’s completely useless. I’d love to say ‘What have you been up to? in order to teach it, but when ‘What is your name?’ generally gets blank looks all round, it’s simply academic. And I’m not talking about ‘low-level’ classes, every class is low-level. So all this fascinating stuff (no irony intended) is useless in developing countries.

  • To Sean and other teachers who may feel this stuff is somehow too ‘advanced’:
    I’ve been thinking about your comment and of course you know your students and what they are capable of. But I don’t entirely agree that all of this fascinating stuff is irrelevant to them, or too difficult. I mean, you say ‘how are you?’ with a particular intonation in a specific situation, and they learn it as a fixed phrase – they don’t necessarily know that ‘how’ is a wh-word, ‘are’ is the present simple of ‘be’ etc,

    So surely if you say ‘What’ve you been up to?’ or ‘How are things?’ with the same sort of intonation, and in an informal meeting and greeting situation, and you indicate that it has the same sort of meaning as ‘How are you?’, then the students could say it a few times before picking it up in one piece and running with it – say it to someone else instead of ‘How are you?’ You could unpick the phrase later if you wanted to, and say that ‘be/are up to’ etc is like ‘do’ in some contexts. Phraseology is so important – a huge amount of what we say consists of semi-fixed (pre-constructed) strings of various degrees of fixedness.

    Secondly, I can suggest two things I’d do in a classroom with ‘up to’ in the sense I talked about in the blog.
    1) Make sure the students know the verb ‘save’ – it’s high-frequency and prominent in ads etc (though we have only recently learnt that the more we spend the more we save). Then give lots of examples of save + preposition + amount, e.g ‘Save up to 30%’, ‘Save as much as 30%’, ‘Save approximately 30%’, ‘Save more than 30%’. You could do the same with ‘pay’, too – ‘Pay as little as’, ‘Pay less than’ etc.

    All these phrases are explained simply and clearly in freely-available online dictionaries like Macmillan, and in learner’s dictionaries generally. Put the phrases into a real day-to-day context, and get the students to discuss which is the most attractive offer.

    2) Maybe this is a bit harder, but everyone needs to know how to talk about amounts, however little English they know. Again they can learn these expressions in chunks to save time – there’s a lot of phraseology involved. So, with ‘up to’ you get things like ‘up to twice/five times as much’, ‘up to 10%’ ‘up to 250%’, ‘up to 75% more’ and so on. All that ‘up to’ does here is to provide a framework for introducing these phrases; you could use a less vague preposition instead. And they are concepts that people have in their own language and probably need to understand.

    I think maybe there is no easy language or difficult language, only useful language. And students need to recognise what they hear. A student once asked me what ‘lendahan’ meant – he wrote it down thus. He know that that’s what his neighbour said when asking him to help with something, so quickly got the point when I put the spaces in and added a ‘d’ – again it’s a worldwide social act, and he’d just learned one of the ways the English do it. He then quickly got the hang of ‘do me a favour’ too. (Sorry for the long spiel; you just woke up one of the bees dozing off in my bonnet.)

  • An even finer example of advertising-speak is “up to 20% or more”, which means literally nothing; either the figure is less than or equal to 20% (“up to”) or it is greater than 20% (“more”), so relating them with “or” is a tautology.

  • Yes! I resisted the temptation to talk about this; it means in theory that in a line like “it is possible to build up to 3,900 nozzles or more on a single print head”, the figure 3,900 is completely arbitrary. In theory only, of course, since someone did mean something – probably this is a blend of ‘up to 3,900’ and ‘3,900 or more’,

  • Stan: That’s clever – at first I thought you meant this was a serious mediaeval calculation – but no, the mediaeval scholars figured out the number of angels was “up to numberless or more”.

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