In the Land of the Fraction People

One in threeAs we know, statistics can shed light on a situation, but can also be used to obscure the truth. Sometimes statistical expressions aren't used in either way; sometimes the reason has more to do with keeping things simple. Newspapers do this quite a bit, perhaps in an effort to maintain a certain readability level. The other day, I saw a good example of the problems one can encounter while attempting to convert certain mathematical quantities to English. The scenario also says something about how individual minds interpret the same information in different ways; once again, the perception is the reality.

Pam Nelson is the proprietor of a grammar-oriented blog at The News & Observer; she frequently uses examples from the workplace to illustrate specific writing points. It seems there had been a discussion among copy editors concerning the proper grammatical rendering of a fraction within a sentence when it's expressed as one in something. The disagreement revolved around the inherent plurality of more than one item within a set. Some of the editors didn't see the logic in referring to one as many; they saw the mathematical quantity as a whole. But Pam saw things more from the vantage point of grammatical construction: the numerator plainly refers to a single item. In its original form, the sentence that launched the discussion is another one of those that's easy to breeze through without really noticing any problems one way or another.

One in three of these deaths are due to a fall; one in four deaths are from poisoning, and one in five are from burns.

As you can see, the one in construction is what's causing the logic problem. The one in three phrase might also be written as one out of three, or one third, or even three tenths, although you probably wouldn't want that last one in this kind of context; it's mathematically identical, but sounds statistically miniscule. The other two fractions could be similarly reworded. After Pam rearranged things, the sentence reflected the singular spirit of the fractions' numerators.

One in three of these deaths is due to a fall; one in four deaths is from poisoning, and one in five is from burns.

Personally, I'd probably have chosen a different expression instead of changing are to is, but then, I don't edit newspaper copy. I like expressions such as a third and one fourth for applications like this, but that's just my preference. To me, the more interesting question has to do with why some people immediately see the implied fractions as collections of things—i.e. more than one—while others disassemble them and focus on things like numerators in the context of English grammar. Maybe it's a left-brain versus right-brain thing.


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