Hardly Anything You Need to Speak or Write About Actually Comes in Tons

by Tina Blue
June 1, 2003

The only way to know if there really are "tons of Mormons" in Utah, as I read in a recent student essay, would be to weigh them all and add their weights together.

A landscape doesn't have "tons of trees," though if those trees are cut down and turned into lumber, that lumber might conceivably be weighed as tons (though that is not how lumber is usually measured).*

Cities are not occupied by tons of people, and there are not tons of smokers in bars and restaurants, even if the city is one that has not passed a total smoking ban. 

Students do not have the opportunity to participate in tons of extracurricular activities, no matter how progressive and affluent their school is.

And although it seems that I have read tons of essays over the past few years that misuse this term of measurement, I doubt if all of them taken together, numerous though they are, would actually weigh in at even a single ton.

It is bad enough that students in grade school use "tons" this way in their writing.  It is worse when they do it in middle school. But by the time they get to high school, they really should understand about levels of formality in language, and they should know that such a form is entirely unacceptable in academic writing.

But I see it all the time, even in the writing of my college students!

Let me make this clear.  Used this way, "tons" is slang, and as such has no place in an essay written for a college class, unless the essay assignment allows for the most strikingly informal sort of language. But it is worse than merely slang. It is childish slang.  So even if the essay assignment allows for the use of slang, the writer should not use "tons" to indicate a large number of things, because anyone past the age of ten should be embarrassed to use such a childish expression in public.

I might also point out that "tons" is a measurement of quantity, and measurements of quantity should not be used for items that are enumerated. Thus, it is incorrect to say a teacher assigned less papers in his class. You should say that he assigned fewer papers in that class. So if he assigned a lot of papers, it would be wrong to say he assigned tons of papers.  If you really want to exaggerate, say he assigned a million papers in that class. Or maybe even a gazillion.  But not "tons." Never "tons."

In fact, it is highly unlikely that you will ever have to write about anything that is measured in tons, unless you are discussing a herd of elephants by weight or writing a paper about the amount of steel being exported or imported from this or that country.

That being the case, why don't you just go ahead and strike "tons" from your regular writing and speaking vocabulary?  Treat it as one of those specialized terms that you almost never need to use, and then never use it unless you are quite sure that you are in one of those special situations.

You can save yourself tons of embarrassment that way.
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*I love it when the world talks back to me.  This news report was posted on CNN.com on Monday, June 23.  But notice, it is "tons of lumber," not  "tons of trees"!

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- Runaway freight cars that overturned and dumped tons of lumber in a Los Angeles suburb were expected to derail 4 miles past the community, but their speed and weight caused them to jump the tracks early, a Union Pacific official said.
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