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I've seen a few folks in various situations complain about the phrase "vast majority". The only online reference I can find for such dissent is (unfortunately?) the urban dictionary.

I grant that the phrase is not particularly eloquent. But it is idiomatic and I use it myself quite frequently in technical documents to represent a figure over 90% but where I don't want to break the flow of text to present the actual value.

So my question(s):

  • Is the idiom "vast majority" something to avoid? Does it leave a bad impression?
  • What are (better) alternatives?
  • 1
    It is impossible to avoid the vast majority. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 12 '13 at 14:46
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    @StoneyB: I dispute that. Granted, it's not so informative/accurate as a percentage, for example. But the vast majority would normally mean something in excess of 75%, and I personally would almost always use it instead of plain the majority for anything over 80-90%. And as to cliche, it seems to me labelling unexceptional usages as cliches is itself something of a cliche on ELU. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 14:58
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    @ badroit: As you can see from this NGram, vast became more popular than great majority some 40 years ago. Academic/formal contexts (and older speakers) often tend to stick with "more traditional" forms longer than mainstream informal/spoken contexts, so you might want to bear that in mind when considering whether to use this one in a technical document. But I personally think the vast majority would have no problem with it. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 15:15
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    @jwpat7: I'd rather be (unjustly, imho) accused of using a cliche than come out with anything as weird as major majority. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 17:17
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    @jwpat7: There's definitely a strong "idiomatic" element here, in that for no particularly obvious reason, we normally say he won by a huge majority if the vast majority voted for him. That's thousands of hits each, but if you swap huge/vast around in those Google Books searches you get a mere handful of results. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 17:32
12

I think "vast majority" is perfectly acceptable. Go for it.

I suppose I am being quite idiosyncratic, but when I use an adjective in front of "majority", I use these rankings, especially when thinking about elections:

  • Vast majority - means almost all or something like 90% or more, but less than unanimous.
  • Overwhelming majority - means well beyond any hope of finding enough who are swayable to take the opposite case or something like 75% or more
  • Large majority - means an unquestionable number such that there's no point in demanding a recount or something like 60%
  • Small majority - means a comfortable margin, but not enough to take for granted or something like 53%
  • Bare majority - means you just barely cracked 50.1% and if this were an election and your opponent demanded a recount, you are probably toast, or 50.1% or more
  • There is also "clear majority", meaning that it is a majority (it doesn't say much about how big a win) and that it is pretty much beyond dispute. Not a close call. – Drew Mar 6 '14 at 6:09
  • To me, there is something slightly strident about vast but even more advocacy is expressed with "overwhelming"... 'Overwhelming' is an emotional response used to also indicate degree. It has a different feeling than large, or very large, or extremely large no matter which of those quantities you might feel fits 'overwhelming'. "Vast" has it's own character too... and tends to sound a bit strident in it hyperbole.. 'vast' on it's own almost implies "beyond measure"... so it seems to cast a shadow of intensity of opinion on top of a degree of majority of opinion. (words do have colors) – Tom22 May 2 '17 at 0:19
4

It may not convey >90% to all readers — you have to be quite careful with this sort of usage. However, if the document uses vast majority in a sense that makes it a subset of most, then I think you can get away with it. It’s certainly a useful phrase, but there's always almost all or all but a few.

  • 1
    Thanks. "Almost all" is a reasonable alternative but it seems a bit too strong in a technical sense, perhaps because of the connotation with "almost surely". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almost_surely "All but a few" doesn't work if dealing with large numbers, where the minority, though relatively small, might be in the thousands or millions. – badroit Sep 12 '13 at 15:00
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    @badroit "All but a few percent..."? It's slightly more specific than "vast majority" while still avoiding numbers (which I would say are preferable in many, even most, cases). – Chris H Sep 12 '13 at 15:02
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In a technical document I might use it but only if I had the actual percentage. For example

The result was positive in the vast majority (94.3%) of cases.

I would, however, try to avoid it and would probably go with something like

The result was positive in a clear majority (94.3%) of cases.

1

I believe "vast majority" is acceptable based on the context. In the context of many other such similar phrases it loses meaning and the audience may feel manipulated. Such is common in political speech and sales pitches. However conclusion and emphasis are elements of good discourse and rhetoric is problematic generally when it excludes or obscures substance.

Certainly we know the meanings of "vast" and "majority" and the composition should be fairly clear.

I recently used "vast majority" in writing about a company once having over a thousand stores covering many states which now has 94 of 107 remaining stores in just one state.

Many Michigan units continue operations stripped of the Elias Brothers name and these are the vast majority (88%) of BBRI's American Big Boy stores.

"Almost all" might have worked but didn't covey the deeper idea as well: that this national chain is now essentially a regional franchise, practically reduced to one state.

1

If you have numbers to support the differentiation between majority and vast majority, I prefer to just see the numbers and usually interpret vast majority as hyperbole.

Also, I would note that majority doesn’t always mean greater than 50 percent, so there is already a lot of inherent ambiguity.

  • 1
    I'm curious. When would a majority not mean greater than 50 percent? – badroit Sep 12 '13 at 16:45
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    @badroit as far as I know, only when referring to adulthood as in age of majority. No idea how this is relevant here. – terdon Sep 12 '13 at 16:51
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    I'm with @badroit. I'd be interested in hearing what situation there might be when "majority" meant "less than 50%" in the context of the question -- age of majority is a whole 'nother context. A plurality could win an election, when the rules permitted it, but that's still not a majority. – Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 21:50
  • That's a good point. I agree that a majority is greater than 50 percent. I should have said a majority doesn't always mean "50 percent or greater." I was thinking in relation to Congress where a majority might be two-thirds of a constituency which would be "67 percent or greater." Which begs the question, what is a vast supermajority? – Timothy Lee Russell Sep 13 '13 at 4:32
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    I've heard "relative majority" used to mean the same thing as "plurality" and it stands in contrast to a "simple majority" which means more than half. I think it's largely a British phenomenon though. – pavja2 Jun 2 '14 at 15:56
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I was curious to learn if "vast majority" was widely considered proper. I suspected it was fine, but I wanted to check. My online search uncovered this forum, while also uncovering a helpful entry from Merriam Webster: Under the dictionary's entry for "vast," Merriam-Webster gives the following example sentence: "The policy is supported by the vast majority of citizens." See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vast

Since the expressions sounds fine to me, since it is widely used, and since at least one major dictionary endorses it, I'm going to continue to use it. I understand it to mean something like "much more than a mere [+50%] majority," though I wouldn't put an exact number on it.

0

The phrase vast majority is rhetorical and impressionistic.

It is not a quantifed measure of anything, except maybe more than half of something. As a nondescript term it is clichéd and more of rejoinder than a purveyor of useful information.

I would avoid it and quantify the topic in clearer terms, such as with some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time.

0

About a year ago, I started noticing the tendency of journalists and politicians to over-use "vast majority." Those two suspect groups have taken it to the point where it should be boycotted now, at least in the Midwest United States - the country's clearing house for hackneyed speech. I have a comfortable cell reserved for it alongside "happy camper," "my wheelhouse," "have a good one," and other weeds we once though of as clever.

0

I think I am one of the few here who thinks the expression can be misused.

1. Suppose there are 20 people. 19 of them vote for X and only one votes for Y. That is an overwhelming majority but is it vast? I don't think so. For the majority to be vast, so does the number of voters.

2. Suppose we are talking about the population of the US. There are roughly 320 million of them. Then we can say, the vast majority of Americans are meat-eaters. That works because the numbers themselves are vast.

protected by tchrist Jun 2 '14 at 15:52

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