A flocking grammar complaint.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Percentage Is? Percentage Are?

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I had hoped to retire my Irascible Grammarian hat. Alas, the decline of the English language has continued apace, and so once more I find myself called to the barricades. Today’s battle is waged on behalf of the collective noun.

A brief story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal on the subject of a skills shortage among American workers began: “Although small-business owners remain upbeat, a growing percentage reports difficulty in finding workers with the right labor qualifications.”

Note that the noun “percentage” is treated as singular. We know this because of the requirement of subject-verb agreement. A “percentage” (singular noun) “reports” (singular verb). With all due respect to the Journal and its editors, this formulation is incorrect.

Let’s turn to “Gwynne’s Grammar,” the British sensation published last year in the U.S., and already, for those of us who proudly count ourselves as grammar grumps, an indispensable if irascible inspiration:

“Collective nouns are another important category of nouns. Examples are ‘crowd,’ ‘flock’ and indeed ‘collection.’ According to their sense in particular cases, the same collective nouns can ... sometimes be plural ... and sometimes be singular.” For collective nouns, in other words, the singular-plural question is determined by the sense of the sentence.

“Percentage” is a collective noun. If collective nouns are singular or plural depending on the sense of the sentence, how do we know which verb number to use with “percentage”? The Oxford Learners Dictionary offers a simple rule: “If the noun is plural, the verb is plural: 65% of children play computer games.”

In the opening sentence of the Wall Street Journal article, the percentage referred to is a percentage of small-business owners -- that is, a group. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “When the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

Note that the group in the Journal’s sentence is not being considered as a whole. The phrase “a growing percentage” suggests a distinction among members of the group. Therefore the reference is to the business owners as individuals, and the plural is correct. The opening sentence should read: “Although small-business owners remain upbeat, a growing percentage report difficulty in finding workers with the right labor qualifications.” The easiest way to see the point is to imagine that the reporter had written “a growing percentage of them.” Now the answer jumps out.

The Wall Street Journal article recognizes this rule later on. The penultimate paragraph begins with this sentence: “Despite the need to attract skilled workers, only a net 20% of small-business owners said they had raised compensation over the past three months, down from 25% saying that in January.” This formulation is obviously correct.

Now let’s delete the phrase “of small-business owners.” Surely we would not write: “only a net 20% said it had raised compensation ... .” We entirely understand that the percentage, because it is a percentage of small-business owners, is plural. Similarly, if we removed the precise figure, we presumably would not write: “only a small percentage said it had raised compensation ... .” Again we would correctly write: “only a small percentage said they had raised compensation.”

There are two easy ways to avoid this confusion. One is to restructure the underlying sentence. For example, the article might have begun: “A growing percentage of small-business owners report ... .” The other is not to leave the collective noun dangling alone. There would have been no problem had the story started out this way: “Although small-business owners remain upbeat, a growing percentage of them ... .” Again, “report” rather than “reports” would have been obvious. Once we see that point, we should be able to envision “of them” in the sentence whether or not the phrase actually appears.

I do not mean to single out the Journal for special criticism. An article at ProFootballTalk on Tuesday has this to say about the departure of linebacker Derrick Morgan from the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans: “The team may have their sights set on Brian Orakpo as a replacement.” In British English this sentence might be correct, but in American English we mustn’t be fooled by the fact that the name of the team is a plural. “Team” is another collective noun, and should be governed by the same rule: When the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used. Thus the sentence should read: “The team may have its sights set on Brian Orakpo as a replacement.”

Perhaps you are less curmudgeonly than I. You might even ask why any of this matters. By way of answer, I yield to Gwynne, whose delightful volume is rich with sensible arguments on behalf of proper grammar. I will quote but one:

“However burdensome mastering rules may be ... so be it. Acquiring new skills of any worth is always going to be burdensome. Using those skills once mastered, however, is not. On the contrary, handling our language properly is satisfying, enjoyable, a source of confidence, and even in a sense comforting, just as is being ‘on top of’ any activity that one wishes to engage in.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net