Percentage and Percentile

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The following paragraph occurred in the denunciation of a certain person in a letter to the editor in my local paper:

He has obstructed the most wholesome and necessary programs which provide for the common good, and has awarded massive financial advantages to a small percentile of the rich.

This erroneous substitution of the word percentile for percentage merits attention. This is not the first time I’ve encountered it.

Some speakers and writers may feel that percentile sounds more “high class” than more ordinary percentage; the word may therefore be in danger of catching on as a genteelism, like “disinterested” for “uninterested.”

A percentage is a part of a whole expressed in hundredths. It can also mean, as the letter writer intended, an indeterminate part of a number.

Merriam-Webster defines percentile as

the value of the statistical variable that marks the boundary between any two consecutive intervals in a distribution of 100 intervals each containing one percent of the total population — called also centile

The College Board site explains the use of percentiles this way:

Percentiles compare your scores to those of other students who took the test. Say, for example, your critical reading score is 500. If the national percentile for a score of 500 is 47, then this means you did better than 47 percent of the national group of college-bound seniors.

(NOTE: An NPR score reports comparative rank among test-takers, not necessarily mastery of a subject.)

The only time to use the word percentile is when talking about statistics. For everything else, there’s percentage.

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5 thoughts on “Percentage and Percentile”

  1. Very good points, indeed. I think it is also important for writers to know when to and when not to use the % sign.

    “Percent” should always be written out in documents.

    The “%” sign is reserved for business presentations and visuals.

    You provide great tips, as always. That’s why I like to check in “daily.”

  2. Jay,
    Thanks for the kind words and the word/symbol tip.

    You and other readers may find the Wikipedia article on Percentage of interest: the section headed Word and symbol.

  3. I found this werbsite looking for a generally recognised symbol for percentile. This is exactly to avoid the confusdion so many have between percent and percentile.

    Currently I am using “%ile ” as a means of indicating it, however it would be nice if there was a language independent symbol that was globally recognised and could be or is included in most trutype fonts for the purpose.

    Alternatively, if this is not feasible, a new graphic (perhaps this is truly a glyph) may have to be created and implemented in the Open Symbol font so as to be totally free of any intellectual property claims or encumberments.

  4. I am writing documents that refer to percentages within the sentence. Often, I say 13 (26%) cases are correct. Is this a proper way to reference a percentage or should it be 13 cases (26%) are correct?

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