Are You Sure You Mean “Majority”?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader in the UK asks

Have you dealt with most v majority in your tips ?  Perhaps you don`t suffer from a rash of “majority” in the US but here it`s a disease.  “The majority of the rain will be in the west.”    “We spend the majority of our time in town.”  It`s that sort of thing ALL the time, in the newspapers, on the radio. everywhere.  When did “most” die out ?

A quick web browse indicates that the “majority disease” is universal.

Why do the majority of people never get cancer?

The Majority of Muslims Who Attend Mosque Weekly . . .

Chomsky: “The Majority of the World Supports Iran”

Pew Study: Despite Budget Shortfalls, the Majority of Governors are Increasing or Protecting Pre-Kindergarten Funding

the majority of rainfall moved south, east, and west of the hardest-hit drought areas.

All of these examples represent an unnecessary use of the statistical term “majority.” In each case “most” would be adequate.

Sometimes “majority” is the right word

majority: a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total –Merriam-Webster

The following example shows the word being used appropriately:

In much of Ethiopia, similar to the Sahelian countries to its west, rainfall from June to September contributes the majority of the annual total,

Here a determinate amount of rainfall is being considered. More than 50% of the total falls from June to September. Less than 50% falls during the remaining months. The word “majority” makes sense in this context.

A Vast Majority
Not only do writers use majority in contexts in which most will do, for some writers, “majority” isn’t complete without “vast.”

Grijalva: Vast Majority of House Progressives Not Prepared to ‘Surrender’ on Public Option

Vast majority of Americans likely to become fat

Coalition: Vast Majority Of Iraqis Still Alive

Surprising New Poll Reveals: Vast Majority of Americans Support the Climate Bill

Kinds of “Majority”
A site called Electorama gives these definitions of different types of “majority”:

A majority means, literally, “more than half”. Compare this with plurality, which means “the most of the group”. When applied to specific situations, majority can take on different meanings, depending on how you apply it:

relative majority usually means “plurality”
simple majority means “more than half of cast votes”
absolute majority means “more than half of eligible voters”
▪ a supermajority is a fraction of the voters between half and all (e.g. 2/3)
consensus usually means complete agreement or “all voters”

I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory definition for the expression “statistical majority.” It seems to mean “a bare majority,” such as 51% of votes cast between two candidates or proposals. It often occurs in writing that is critical of the outcome of an election in which one candidate or proposal has won by a slim majority.

Writers may wish to question their use of the word majority. Is statistical information being discussed? Or is the meaning just “most”?

As for “vast majority,” I’d say that, except for the rarest landslide, that expression belongs in the cliché bin.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


8 Responses to “Are You Sure You Mean “Majority”?”

  • Brad K.

    Maeve,

    So – how should a writer aggrandize a statement, to add gravitas and an arrogant air to a statement? I could say that most of my friends like ice cream. But if I want to sound really, really convincing, I might say the vast majority (that is, my Mom has a sensitive tooth right now, and sticks to yogurt) of people (I will let the “of my friends” be implied; it intimates a larger population sampling) like ice cream.

    On the other hand, if I just want to convey bare, unalloyed observation, “most of my friends” would be sufficient, even though it suffers from being most nearly correct. And where is the hyperbole in that! lol!

    Brad K.

  • Tony Hearn

    Hmm. I suspect there is a bit more to ‘majority’ than that. The example given, ‘the majority of the annual total’, feels wrong and runs against what I was taught. So a reference to Fowler’s A dictionary of Modern English Usage’ might help.

    He allows three uses of ‘majority; a) a superiority in number or plurity, e.g. The motion was passed by a small majority; b) the more numerous of two or more sets that has a plurity, e.g. The majority was/were determined to press its/their victory; and c) most of a set of persons, e.g. ‘A majority of my friends advise it’, or ‘The majority were fatally wounded’.

    The problems arise with c). The rule seems to be, and logically so, that ‘a majority of’ needs to be followed by a plural or an uncountable noun, otherwise we should use ‘the greater, or larger, part of’, or just ‘most of’. Thus, ‘The majority of the class had to spend the greater part of their spare time clearing up litter’. So I would have written above; ‘The greater part of the annual total…’. This rule also explains why (justifiably) ‘the majority of the time’ feels wrong to your correspondent. like him, however, I see this nicety observed as frequently in the breach as in the observance!

  • akedia

    i’ve just found a thread about this topic in one of the forums i usually consult. it adds expressions such as ‘solid/landslide/safe majority’ i hope it’s useful. http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1224697

  • Klepto

    I always thought “vast majority” referred to 75%-99% of whatever was being measured, since majority on it own vaguely refers to 51% or more.

    i.e. Majority of the time my friend calls me for help.
    This could be anywhere from 5/6 to 9 out of 10 times.

    i.e. A vast majority of the time my friend calls me for help.
    This would be anywhere from 7/8 to 9 out of 10 times.

    Of course there are other ways of phrasing both sentences to avoid using majority, but I don’t see anything wrong with how the word is used since it is still referring to part of a whole.
    Real overheard conversation: “How much of the pie was eaten?”
    “Most of it.”
    “How much is most?”
    “The vast majority.”
    “I’ll buy another.”

    I think there are more important issues to address with the use of the English language, like overusing and destroying the meanings of words such as racism, gay, Nazi, and special.

  • Michele | Writer’s Round-About

    Hmmm…. Interesting. I checked out what the AP Stylebook says about it.

    Majority means more than half the amount.

    Then, it also discusses COMPUTING MAJORITY: To describe how large a majority is, take the figure that is more than half and subtract everything else from it: If 100,000 votes were cast in an election and one candidate received 60,000 while opponents received 40,000, the winner would have a majority of 20,000 votes.

    Great article! I’ll definitely think more carefully about how I use the word “majority” in the future….

  • Shirley, in Berkeley

    Comment #2 has it right: “majority” is more than half of a countable number, “most” is more than half of just about anything.

    This echoes the confusion about “fewer” and “less.” News commentators, advertisers, you name it, continually say less when they mean fewer.

    “Less people will come down with flu than anticipated.” NO! It’s FEWER people.

    Precision in language is eroding and fading away. Drives me nuts.

  • Andy

    “Precision in language is eroding and fading away. Drives me nuts.”

    This was meant to contain humor, right? “Drives me nuts,” ha ha, I like it.

  • Lucy

    So, can we or can we not use qualifiers before the term “majority”? It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone!

Leave a comment: