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Watch your majorities

It’s Election Day, and while we wait to discover whether the Board of Elections has finally learned how to count, here’s a little language point about the word majority.

A writer turned in an article with a reference to “the majority of land.” It seems more fitting to limit majority to association with count nouns, such as voters or votes. But land is a mass noun, and most of or the bulk of would go better with it.

While we’re at it, it would be good to remember in going over election copy that margin is the difference between the winner and loser. “A margin of 52 percent to 48 percent” is wrong; in such an outcome, “a margin of four percentage points” would be correct.

And humble thanks: Johnson, the language blog of The Economist, has taken favorable notice of my annual campaign against holiday cliches. Most kind.


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:29 PM | | Comments (3)


Where I come from one of the perfectly accepatble definitions of "majority" is "the larger part or share of."

"Margin" is the edge of something, not the difference between. Hence, in a poll or survey, the "margin for error" is the overlapping edges of two groups of data--or the place in the numbers where the difference could be indistinguishable.

And who was responsible for the "Orange you cute" headline on the front page caption of The Sun on Halloween? Talk about dreck the halls cliches!

Tom: Margin has more than one meaning when used as a noun. Yours and John's are both correct examples. I was actually going to mention the "margin for error" idiom myself, since confidence intervals are so often confused by political commentators who haven't studied statistics.

Additionally, "Dreck the Halls" would make a great headline for an article about bad clichés.

Got some copy tonight from a sports columnist noting "unanimous margins" in some election races. Just even considering that almost blew my synapses.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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