August 23, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Those pesky apostrophes & more about percents

Posted in apostrophe, fractions-singular or plural, percent or percentage at 6:57 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Those pesky apostrophes

A reader writes:

I am editing a grant submission that uses a possessive apostrophe with “et al” and am unsure where the apostrophe goes. Currently it reads: “If we compare Smith’s et al improvement…” It wouldn’t be “Smith et al’s” would it? Neither look right!

Oh, thank you. This gives me an opportunity to share with you one of the most important lessons I have learned over the years. This is it: When in doubt, rewrite. There is always another way to state something to avoid whatever problem you are facing. If you can’t decide on the punctuation or the spelling or the wording or whatever, just find another way of stating it. It solves the problem at hand, but it also has another benefit. It provides an occasion for you to review and revise your writing to ensure clarity and grace. It is helpful to get away from your work for a little while. If you are too close, you no longer see the words, and instead of seeing what you did say, you tend to see what you wanted to say. When you come back to your work, it is easier to see and remove any empty phrasing or unclear statements. You can make sure that your writing is tight and to the point. There is a terrific article on revising medical or scientific writing. It’s old but it’s still available, and it is right on the money and fun to read, too.

DeBakey L., DeBakey S. The Case Report II. Style and form. International Journal of Cardiology. 1984; 6(2): 247 – 254.

Here is just a sample:

Avoid the kind of diction that anesthetizes scientific writing—inept jargon, barbarisms, slang, vogue words, clichés, redundancy, and circumlocutions…Instead of engaging the reader’s mind, frayed words encourage the attention to wander, perhaps never to return to your message. Once the reader surrenders to private thoughts, his eye may vacantly traverse, but his mind never receives the crucial passage that clinches your thesis.

The DeBakeys then go on to provide specific examples of inept jargon, barbarisms, slang, vogue words, etc. and tell you how to avoid them. Well worth the read.

Okay, so much for my pontification on revising; let’s go back to the reader’s question. The constructs, as written, are awkward at best. This is definitely a time for a rewrite, and the problem is easily solved.

If we compare Smith and colleagues’ improvement…


If we compare Smith and associates’ improvement…

By removing ‘et al’ from the sentence, we avoid the awkward structure, and the appropriate position for the apostrophe becomes clear.

Tip 2: A bit more on percents

A reader writes:

I am very confused.

The bill directs that 25 percent of the money goes to charities.


The bill directs that 25 percent of the prizes go to the local institution.

Isn’t the subject “25 percent”? And percent should be singular… I agree with your conclusion (GOES) but got there differently ….?

The good news, dear reader, is that you are not alone in your confusion. I investigated this a little and found all kinds of views on the subject. Some thoughts were quite amazing. I was going to give you some examples of the more farfetched ideas (e.g., if it’s more than 50%, it’s plural but less, singular) but best that you don’t have such silly misinformation spinning in your brains!

The reader is correct that 25 percent is the subject, but percent is not necessarily singular. It depends on the way in which it is used (don’t you love that so many answers to grammar questions involve ‘it depends’?). The convention is for the verb to correspond to whatever the percent is referring to. You’ll want to look at the ‘of’ phrase (prepositional phrase) that follows to determine whether the verb is singular or plural—that depends on whether the object of the preposition is singular or plural. Let’s try another example:

I estimated that 75% of the apples are going to be used to make an apple pie.

 Almost 50%  of the newspaper was dampened by the rain.

The verb form matches the object of the preposition—the object being what ‘percent’ refers to. Is that clear? Sometimes the object is implied, but we still want to match the implied object. The same holds true for fractions:

Three-quarters of the books are classics.

Half of the bench was hidden by piles of snow.



  1. Keith J said,

    “If we compare Smith and colleagues’ improvement…” and “If we compare Smith and associates’ improvement…” are correct, but are EXACTLY the same as (the also correct and no more or less awkward) “If we compare Smith et al’s improvement…”

    Just because “et al” is less familiar than “and colleagues” doesn’t make it wrong!

    • dlseltzer said,

      No, as i said, it makes it awkward.

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