A topic came up today concerning the usage of the word "half".

I was describing a separation of labour into two obviously unequal groups. A colleague corrected me, saying that the word "half" necessitates an equal division into two parts. By my understanding, a half can, outside of the mathematical definition, mean any binary division regardless of ratio. A look into the etymology seems to support this.

My question is:

  • Is it acceptable to use "half" in this fashion?
  • Is it more acceptable in certain situations?
  • Is there a less ambiguous term that can be used here?


To be clear, the reason for my confusion is the origin of the word. A few sources show its original meaning to be side and even part, without necessarily being equal.

The former term is reflected in the word behalf: on one's side and is related to the German halbe which is the preferred term for side, whereas hälfte is used for an equal half.

  • how can you have more than 2 sides of an animal? Are there more than 2 sides to a battlefield from the classic perspective of 2 armies facing each other, or chess players across the board? (I know it's a square board with 4 sides, but 2 of them don't have players). Can you provide a link or source for 'three halves'? Feb 23 '14 at 20:00
  • @LeonConrad I do hope you realize how silly that sounds. Are there only ever two sides to something? A square has four sides, regardless of how many are occupied. The Grand Alliance was an agreement between three sides, and the Eleven Year's War occurred between three opposing factions. The "three halves" came from an old poem found when looking into the origin of "half". I believe it was by Edward Taylor, but without a link, I'll remove that part.
    – nwn
    Feb 24 '14 at 23:03
  • I think you're missing the point I made earlier about halving being, by definition, a binary division. Of course things can have many sides, but that is irrelevant to halving. Feb 25 '14 at 5:45

No, half is usually used for an equal division. From the OED:

half: either of two equal or corresponding parts into which something is or can be divided:

But it can be used loosely for a nearly equal division. For instance, two of the examples from the oed are the northern half of the island and two and a half years. I think in both cases a listener wouldn't expect an exactly equal division.

Instead you could say divide into two


The sense of 'half' is always - whether metaphorically or literally, exactly or approximately measured - a division into 2 proportionally equal parts.

The only other bipartite proportional division is the golden section, where a:b::b:a+b.

Any other bipartite division will be both unequal and unproportional.

According to the dictionary entries I've looked into for half and halve, the only reference I could find to anything that indicated otherwise was 'side' - think of the side of an animal (we still use the phrase 'a side of beef').

I'd say that conveyed the sense very well.


Google has:


noun (formal; technical)

  1. each of two parts into which a thing is or can be divided.

But I'd stick to 'two parts'.

I'd certainly be very wary about using 'half' to mean one of two very unequal parts, because usage decrees it won't be understood that way without rich context.

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