May 13, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Percent or percentage & mistrust or distrust

Posted in distrust or mistrust, percent or percentage at 8:12 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Percent or percentage

A reader writes:

Is there a rule about when to use percentage vs. percent? I’m labeling a graph, and I’m not sure if it should read “percent of participants” or “percentage of participants.”

This is a good question. It can be tricky knowing when to use each word. And there is little to no consensus on the topic. In my searches, I found agreement on only one item:

Use percent when you use a specific number.

Eighty percent of subjects reported a high degree of satisfaction with the intervention.

Of the 185 participants, 48.9% were female, and 63.8% were Caucasian, while 21.7% were Asian, and 14.5% were from underrepresented minority groups (e.g., Hispanic, African-American).

[NOTE: When the number is spelled out, ‘percent’ should also be spelled out. When the number is expressed as a number, ‘percent’ should be written as a symbol ‘%.’]

On everything else, I found a variety of opinions.

Some say to always use ‘percent’ and not ‘percentage’ because ‘percentage’ sounds like the writer is showing off and using pretentious words, like using ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use.’ (Stop using utilize!) I sympathized with this argument since, as you know, I like clarity and simplicity. But then I thought of this sentence:

Only a small percent of eligible applicants submitted grant proposals for this award.

Using ‘percent,’ in this case, seems a little awkward to me. I would rather use ‘percentage.’

Only a small percentage of eligible applicants submitted grant proposals for this award.

That sounds more graceful.

Others say they mean the same thing and only differ grammatically and that ‘percentage’ is a noun and ‘percent’ is an adverb. I disagree; ‘percent’ can be an adverb, but it can also be a noun or an adjective.

Still others view ‘percentage’ as referring to a concept and ‘percent’ to be a unit, providing as examples ‘voltage’ vs. ‘volts’ in electricity or ‘mileage’ vs. ‘miles’ in distance. While I like the sound of this, I don’t really buy the concept and unit approach.

I would use ‘percentage’ when I want to suggest a portion of something.

A large percentage of those attending the conference were basic scientists.

Remember, ‘percentage’ cannot stand alone.

A percentage of the trainees are working on their Master of Science degrees.

Here, we don’t know what the ‘percentage’ represents. It could be 5% or 95%. Something that indicates size is needed to provide context and meaning.

A small percentage of the trainees are working on their Master of Science degrees.

The percentage of MDs who also have PhDs is increasing.

The percentage of men over women who consume bacon for breakfast daily is staggering.

The last example, above, is a less well written sentence, since we don’t know what staggering means here–it could mean surprising or large, and we have no sense of degree.

So, here are my rules for using ‘percent’ and ‘percentage.’ Follow them and you can’t go wrong.

1) When you are writing about a specific number (part of 100), use ‘percent.’

2) When you use ‘percent,’ a number should be included.

3) Don’t put a space between the percent sign (%) and the number (e.g., 25%)

3) When you are writing about a portion of something, and there is no specific number, use ‘percentage.’

4) When using ‘percentage’ always modify it with a word representing size or degree.

So, going back to the reader’s question on which to use when labeling a graph, I would say that it depends on whether the reader is writing the overall name of the graph (e.g,. Percentage of participants of different ethnicities) or a specific point in the graph (e.g., 36% of participants were Hispanic).

Finally, different journals have differing rules on whether to use the percent sign or the word, so when you are submitting a manuscript, it is probably a good idea to check on the journal’s conventions.

We should probably talk about the way to use percents, percentages, and percentage points, too. But let’s save that for another day.

Tip 2: Mistrust or distrust

A reader writes:

I am writing a paper on people’s willingness to participate in research, and I want to include a section on why African Americans hesitate to participate; however, I don’t know whether to refer to a mistrust or a distrust of the health care system. Is one word preferred over the other?

Since you are writing about a group, you probably should use ‘mistrust,’ although I am sure there are some people (regardless of race) who distrust the health care system. The words are similar in meaning, but there is a subtle difference.

They both mean to doubt something, but ‘mistrust’ has connotations of uncertainty or uneasiness, where ‘distrust’ connotes having strong suspicions or knowledge.

I mistrust that politician’s ability to govern, and I distrust his motives completely.

That is, I doubt that politician’s ability, and I do not trust him at all.

In the reader’s example, African Americans may lack faith in the health care system but lack certainty that the health system is motivated to hurt them, that is, they mistrust the system. But some people have stronger feelings (e.g., after Tuskegee, I distrust everything the researcher is saying to me).

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.
Henry L. Stimson (1867 -1950)

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