counting on it

two geese swimming on misty river

Occasionally a phrase in a news story or online article brings me up short and demands to be noted and preserved in some way.

The phrase that caught my attention this week comes from an article on the current all-time high of double births, which has been so widely reported under headlines that use the phrase “Twins peak” that I can only assume that is an exact quotation from a press release.

Punny headlines can be appealing, but I think it behoves a publication to find their own wit in the department to come up with something original.

The phrase that particularly stood out is also widely repeated, so presumably has also been copied directly without any consideration of clarity:

“About 1.6 million twins are born each year worldwide, with one in every 42 children born a twin.”

Does no one else feel the immediate need to start doing calculations?

If one in 42 new-borns is a twin, surely – barring accidents – the 43rd must also be a twin? After all, like the animals and the ark, twins arrive two by two, and it would be cruel to separate them or to force the mother to wait any longer than necessary for the second birth.

fresh peas in the pod

Most of the articles also say that in America and Europe 12 twins are born per 1000 deliveries. The way this is phrased makes it incredibly tempting to convert it to a 1.2% chance of a pregnancy resulting in twins.

In fact, for 12 twins to be born requires only six deliveries, leaving 994 singleton births, so I think it must actually be half that – a 0.6% chance.

Knowing that my calculations don’t considering whether the twins are fraternal or identical, as well as ignoring other multiple births, I thought I’d have a look for further information and found the NHS website, where it says that:

“about 1 in every 65 births in the UK today are twins, triplets or more.”

Which is actually 1.5% of births. So now I’m even more confused and feel a great deal of sympathy for Mr Roberts who tried to teach me maths many years ago.

iris foetidissima seeds in pods

I went to school in Wales, where almost every teacher was either a Jones or a Roberts, which partly explains this old poem:

Secondary education

Thirty years ago, I failed
at school. Since then, washing lines
and roller blinds have taught me
all I need to know of pulleys
– more than ever Mr Roberts (maths)
was able. I’ve found that sound
is energy, as every tug resisted
turns to squeak.

I sort the clothes
in sets, but socks still disappear
through worm holes in the wash
or wrap themselves in möbius chains
(though less so, now I’ve mastered
static electricity and use conditioner).

No doubt
Miss Jones (domestic science?
history?) would be proud
of my monarchial skills: I can tell
King Edward from William
or Victoria, and I know
the ways they should be served.
I can divide five baking spuds
between six unexpected guests
– the answer is a bowl of mash,
of course, or chips – and Mrs Jones
(biology) would be amazed
at how unfazed I am when faced
with filleting a fish.

3D geometry’s
a snip when pans don’t fit
the recipe – as easy as apple pie –
and scaling up to feed the ever-growing clan
is second nature now. I have acquired
the social skills of any international diplomat
and can prepare four-coloured seating plans
for Christmas – children as buffer states
protect the tribal borders.

All the grandkids moan: they don’t understand
why Nan’s so keen they study hard when she
was such a dunce; but then, it’s only now I realise
how relevant the core curriculum can be.


two geese swimming on misty river

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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