With fellow logophile Bernadette Kinlaw now gone from the pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it seems it falls to me to fly the Word Nerd banner alone at the paper, at least in columns. (We’re lousy with word nerds; throw a rock, you’ll hit a word nerd. But please, don’t throw rocks. By the way, best of luck to Bernadette in her new job!)
It’s a welcome reprieve from politics and misinformation and the havoc they’ve wreaked on so many parts of our lives, including our health-care decisions in the midst of a deadly pandemic. After the past several weeks, I need a break, and in editing a few things recently, I’ve come upon something that deserves some attention.
Longtime readers understand that as far as grammar goes, I’m no snob. As I deal with conversational grammar most often, I fall mostly in the descriptivist camp, which focuses on how words are used rather than how the rules of grammar (some of which are just someone’s pet peeves that got enshrined as holy) say they should be used. Those people are prescriptivists, and the hard-liners among them can be tough to be around. Sometimes, though, the prescriptivist inside me escapes her shackles and yells until I pay attention.
She really doesn’t like when people misuse “percent,” “percentage,” and “percentage point.” On this, I can’t blame her because the terms aren’t really interchangeable.
I know that language evolves, but when the different meanings are ignored, we need to put on the brakes.
“Percent” and “percentage” aren’t drastically different. Percent means a specified amount within 100; for example, 35 percent of people who say they like kumquats in my totally made-up poll means 35 of every 100 of them like kumquats. Percentage is a proportion in relation to the whole, expressed as a fraction of 100. Percent should be preceded by a number: “The poll found 27 percent wouldn’t touch a kumquat with a 10-foot pole.” Percentage, though, may not include a number at all, in which case it may be preceded by an adjective (large, small, insignificant, etc.): “A small percentage of those polled thought kumquats were animals.”
While someone using “percent” rather than “percentage” in that second sentence would make me cringe and isn’t really correct, it’s not something likely to cause great misunderstanding.
Those two terms and “percentage point,” on the other hand, cannot be used willy-nilly, as the meaning is predicated on mathematical principles. A percentage point is the simple numerical difference between two percentages. If the percentage of people who said they liked kumquats in year one was 35 percent, but in year two was 43 percent, there is a difference of eight percentage points. However, if someone said the difference was eight percent, they would be wrong.
Why? Math. Yeah, I know, math is evil (but it’s really not).
Forty-three minus 35 equals eight percentage points, but that’s not the rate/percentage of change. That’s found by taking the difference between the two numbers (8), then dividing that by the original number (35) and multiplying by 100, to give you the difference of 22.857 percent (or 22.9 or 23, if you’re rounding). A positive number, as in this case, is the rate of increase; if your answer is a negative, it’s the rate of decrease.
And if math scares or annoys you, you can always go the easy way and use percent-change.com (my standby) to determine the correct percentage.
There’s quite a bit of difference between 22.9 percent (the correct percentage of change/rate of increase) and 8 percent (the simple mathematical difference between the two years). While the difference may not be much of an issue in everyday conversation, it can have a large impact if the words are used incorrectly in professional settings or legal documents. In a news story, that mistake would mean a correction would be merited. In a bank contract, it could be the difference between solvency and insolvency.
Same could be said for kumquat farmers based on that rate of increase in people who like kumquats. Maybe I should look into getting some kumquat trees …
Seriously, I think I may need to try that, even though that poll was entirely in my imagination and I picked “kumquats” because it’s fun to say.
Try it. Kumquats.
There are other grammar errors that annoy me, some the result of a lack of knowledge, and others from pure laziness. Sometimes you deal with people who can’t be troubled to spell-check, much less fact-check, or who don’t understand that the CapsLock button can be turned off. Maybe it’s people who don’t understand how punctuation is used, or why there shouldn’t be a space in front of it. (Two spaces behind isn’t as much of a problem, but space in front of punctuation (!!!) is just asking for errors to be made in editing.)
Sometimes it’s people who don’t seem to grasp the a/an rule (let’s not talk about h-words, though), which means you get to see things like “a exciting time was had by all” or “a RNC operative.” The rule of thumb here is whether the next word begins with a vowel or consonant sound; if it’s a vowel sound, use “an.” Yes, RNC begins with an R, but the letters are initials that are pronounced individually rather than as a word (like NATO), and R is pronounced with a vowel sound at the beginning (ahr; think aardvark), so it should be “an.” If it was DNC, it would be “a” because D is pronounced dee.
I’m all for less formality in writing as it’s usually more readable, but only where appropriate. There’s a difference (or should be) between posting on social media and writing in a newspaper, and between that and writing for an academic journal. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker noted in the Guardian in 2014: “Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.”
Sure, I may be the only one inordinately peeved by the misuse of “percent,” “percentage,” and “percentage point,” but that’s based on actual definitions and math rather than a simple distaste. In this case, informal style is incorrect grammar.
Save the percentage point!