Part of the whole

Get a load of the size of the Etymology Monthly! Cartoon by John Deering.

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.

I really need to try these. Image found on Citrus.com.

“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).

When I look like this, I’m either thinking or in the middle of an IBS flare-up. GIF found on giphy.

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.

I mean, just look at them! Adorable! Image found on The Spruce.

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.)

This looks like so many grammar grouches I’ve known. Reform, y’all! Image found on Twitter.

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!

With any luck, the percentage of people who now understand that there are differences between “percent,” “percentage,” and “percentage point” will have increased just like this. GIF found on giphy.

17 thoughts on “Part of the whole

  1. I shouldn’t have read your math section just now. It’s midnight here, and my brain goes to sleep at around 10. Plus I’m extremely allergic to math in any form or context. But I agree with everything else. Word nerds unite!

    Like

    • I know the feeling! I had three years of advanced math in high school, two of them with a great teacher, and I used to be able to recite the quadratic formula in my sleep. One semester of college algebra with a master’s candidate with a grudge made that disappear. I should have seen if I could have taken the test to exempt myself, but that was money I didn’t have.

      Like

  2. Your discussion of percent, percentage, and percentage points warms my heart, as I have tried to clarify them in teaching and textbooks over the years/decades. They are often intentionally confused for misleading purposes: as in saying “Women are twice as likely as men to believe X” when the percentages are one percent for men and two percent for women. The real story here is that almost nobody believes X. In fact, the very few who say they do may have misunderstood the question.

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    • And I got into this because I was so tired of seeing people write “the percent of” … then I had to give the little math lesson on percentage point on a page proof, and that was the last straw. Sigh.

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  3. Ms. Looper, Great points today! Your comment about the caps lock caused a tangential thought to pop in my head. In the days of telegrams, teletypes, and telex machines, all copy was in upper case. The typewriters (called “mills”) used by telegraph operators had no lower case type, only upper case letters and numerals. Imagine getting a telegram today, it would seem like you were being screamed at by the sender. The nuances of communication constantly evolve in many different ways. Thanks for being a word nerd. Regards, Joe Bratton Sheridan

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    • Thanks, Joe! I never knew that about the telegraph typewriters, but it makes sense.

      I also get things where every word is capitalized, which is a headache. If you ever see a capitalized word that shouldn’t be on the Voices page, it means I missed one. 😂

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  4. Is that supposed to be you in John Deering’s cartoon of the woman reading the Etymology Monthly? If so, I think it is so appropriate that she is drinking a cup of Alphabet Soup while she is reading.

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    • It is. I had just asked him to draw a word nerd. He’s snuck me in several cartoons over the years when I’ve asked him for art. I’m in the crowd holding a cat in the one he drew with Lincoln saying you can’t roller-skate in a Buffalo herd. 😂

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  5. If you don’t want us throwing rocks at you and the rest of your co-workers, what would you like for us to throw?

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