Shun Arithmetical Writing

“A full 44 percent of the earth’s land is composed of areas larger than 4,000 square miles that have fewer than two people per square mile.”


from The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon


This is taken from a chapter called “A 10 Percent World.” Most people can’t tell you what percent means, even though the word is common and tossed around in American English as if everyone knew how to use it. Most people can’t tell you, for example, that 20 percent means one fifth. So writing about percentages is a risky business if you wish to be understood. Moreover, most people are not capable of the arithmetical acrobatics that the quoted sentence calls for.


Additional trouble from arithmetical writing comes from its seductive ability to spawn more of itself. Counting is a fundamental trait of humans, so the abundance of numbers seduces the unwary into using them, even where they’re not needed. They are fruit hanging delightfully low. This same writer goes on for page after page with such phrases as “estimated one-fifth to one-third…” and “154 recorded bird extinctions…” as well as “65 percent of its primeval range…” and “5 percent of historical numbers….”


When he’s not being led astray by lists, MacKinnon proves himself to be an excellent writer. One of the worst evils of lists and numbers in writing is that they destroy any elegance the language might offer. Except in technical papers, it’s best to avoid them.