A number of things
Writers struggle to get the quantities right.
Only a die-hard classicist would insist that decimate should be used in its strictest, original sense, reduction by one-tenth. But this sentence from the Associated Press — Environmentalists worry about the large populations of migratory seabirds and crab, the imperiled Stelle’s sea lions and northern sea otters, or the North Pacific right whales, a population so decimated only about 100 are thought to still exist — shows an increasingly common misuse. Decimate should mean to suffer substantial loss, but not to be on the edge of annihilation.
Just how much does the lion share? Democrats oppose the lion’s share of the package, with the possible exception of the reduction for the lowest wage earners and targeted cuts such as the credit for children, and would be all but certain to block its renewal. The lion takes all it wants and leaves scraps for the jackals and other scavengers. So the lion’s share is either the whole thing or all that is worth having. Not just the majority or the bulk. And in the quoted sentence, the term seems to be completely out of place. The lion’s share is what you get, not what you oppose.
Ever since the war in Iraq began to produce U.S. casualties, readers have been writing in to complain that The Sun’s headlines and articles have used troops to mean individual soldiers, as in x number of troops died in the explosion of a bomb. A troop, they insist is a unit of soldiers, and troops should mean multiple units. Yes, and no. The older sense of troop as a military unit survives, but common usage has come to accept troops in the sense of individuals.
Similarly, the word cohort, much as I deplore the usage and shun it myself, has come to be understood as a synonym of companion or accomplice. You and I might prefer to retain the word in the sense of a military unit (though not necessarily the Roman tenth of a legion) as in Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold. ...” But we appear to have lost that battle. (That is, apart from the survival of the word as a collective noun in demographic contexts, such as my own cohort of baby boomers, now mercifully marching toward the grave.)
We sometimes come across the word majority applied to quantity rather than units, as in he spends the majority of his time. … It should be bulk. And, please, the word vast is not required to indicate every majority that is substantial or decisive. In fact, now that I’ve started on this, there often isn’t any call to use majority at all when most will suffice.
And as for couple, the source of lengthy but unprofitable debate on copy desks, the word, like other collective nouns, can be singular or plural, depending on context. If there is doubt about the context, use the plural. And accompanying pronouns may be made plural without apology. As John Bremner wrote a quarter-century ago in Words on Words, you do not want to be responsible for a monstrosity like “The couple was married two years ago and it spent its honeymoon in Florida. But it was divorced last year and then went its separate ways.”
One last reminder comes from an admonitory message from a reader of The Sun about our coverage of homicides.
“The story today [Dec. 26] about the number of homicides in Baltimore this year resurrects an old chestnut, i.e. identifying a change in raw crime numbers erroneously as a change in RATE. In the case of crime statistics, the usual population benchmark changes over time, so a reporter or reader cannot deduce changes in rate based solely on changes in raw numbers. Yes, the number of homicides has fallen since the mid-90s but so has the population, so the change in the homicide RATE in the past decade might very possibly be small or non-existent. Inclusion of population data would have enhanced this story. I realize that many journalists chose journalism because they weren't good at math, but that does not justify illogic when reporting stories about statistics.”