4

General idea

What is the best way to describe a group that has the largest share of something but doesn't have more than 50%? I'm tempted to use the word "most", but I mentally associate it with the idea of "50% or more".

Example

To illustrate this, consider that I'm trying to describe the colors of the M&M's in a particular bag:

  • 32% of the M&M's are red
  • 28% of the M&M's are brown
  • 16% of the M&M's are blue
  • 14% of the M&M's are yellow

Note how no single color accounts for 50% or more of the M&M's, but red M&M's represent the largest share across all colors.

In this case, would it still be correct if I said that "most M&M's in the bag are red"?

Or do I have to be more precise and say something like "Red M&M's represent the largest share of bag"? I just feel that this second approach, while more specific, ends up being clunkier and less reader-friendly. Is there a better/more fluid way to express this idea of "red is #1" without using the word "most"?

Plurality

I am aware that the concept I'm dancing around is called "plurality". Here is the Merriam-Webster definition of plurality:

  1. a : the state of being plural; b : the state of being numerous; c : a large number or quantity;
  2. : pluralism sense 1; also : a benefice held by pluralism;
  3. a : a number greater than another; b : an excess of votes over those cast for an opposing candidate; c : a number of votes cast for a candidate in a contest of more than two candidates that is greater than the number cast for any other candidate but not more than half the total votes cast;

Actually using the term "plurality" in a context that doesn't involve voting sounds a bit unnatural. Here are the alternatives I could come up with:

  • The plurality of the M&M's are red.
  • The plurality belongs to the red M&M's.
  • Red represent the plurality of the M&M's in the bag.

To me they all seem either unnatural or clunky. Are there any better ways to express this? If using the word "plurality" really is the best here, how would we actually phrase it?

Dictionary ambiguity regarding the word "most"

When I looked up the formal definition of the word "most" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is what comes up:

  1. greatest in quantity, extent, or degree
  2. the majority of

Definition #1 leads me to believe that I can use the word most for the red M&M's. But the second definition ("the majority of") leads be to believe that I cannot, because the term "majority" quite explicitly refers to "50% or more" (see Merriam-Webster's definition of the word "majority" here).

So which is it: am I allowed to use "most" or not?

Real world scenario (with made up/anonymized numbers)

It will be of no surprise to you that I am not writing a technical report describing the colors of M&M's in a bag. Instead, this is what the real world scenario looks like: a set of stakeholders have classified several projects into three different time frames: short term, mid term and long term. These projects are split into four different regions and each project has its own cost estimate.

Here are the graphs summarizing the number and total cost the projects by region and by time scale.

Number of Projects by Time Scale

Project Cost Estimate Totals by Time Scale

Note that I have anonymized the region names. Also, the actual numbers in these graphs were made up.

So for region A, I'm trying to convey 4 pieces of information to the reader:

  • The most common time frame chosen by stakeholders was "short term"
  • The share of projects classified as "short term" was 47%
  • The time frame with the largest cost estimate total was "long term"
  • 47% of the region's estimated cost total belongs to projects classified as "long term"

Notice how in both cases (number of projects and cost total), the group with the highest numbers has less than 50% of the total, so conveying those four pieces of information in a fluid way seems pretty tricky. Here's what I did:

In region A, the most frequent time frame was “Short Term”, which accounted for 47% of the region’s projects and 18% of the area’s estimated project cost total. The largest share of the region's cost estimate total belongs to projects classified as "long term", which accounts for 9% of the region's projects and 47% of the region's cost estimate total.

While the statements above are numerically accurate and precise, I feel they are a bit clunky and bloated. Sadly, I think that using the term "plurality" won't help much with clarity.

TL;DR

Can I use the word "most" when referring to less than 50% of the total? If not, what is the most reader-friendly way to convey the idea that "group X is #1" in the sense that it represents the largest share, even though said share is less than 50% of the total?

Why this is not a duplicate question

My post was flagged as a duplicate of the following question: Is "most" equivalent to "a majority of"?

I would posit that my post here is not a duplicate of that question, and here's why.

That question is asking if the term "most" is equivalent to the term "a majority of". Furthermore, the discussion in that question points to the distinction of the use of "most" between two main cases: "slightly over 50%" and "significantly over 50%". The discussion doesn't even discuss the "less than 50%" case. I understand that this might mean that the term is not supposed to be used in those cases, but it does not state that fact clearly.

My question is similar but not exactly the same: I'm specifically interested in knowing whether or not it is acceptable to use the term "most" when referring to groups that represent less than 50%. Furthermore, I'm also asking about how to phrase the idea of "group X is #1 (even though it has less than 50% of the total)" in the most reader-friendly way.

1
  • Can you say that "most M&M's in the bag are red" and, at the same time, agree that "most M&M's in the bag are not red"? Jan 24, 2023 at 23:43

3 Answers 3

3

Plurality is the correct word.

a number greater than another

a number of votes cast for a candidate in a contest of more than two candidates that is greater than the number cast for any other candidate but not more than half the total votes cast

M-W

Consider this ngram. The term is used about 10% as often as majority, which, while less popular, still registers fairly high.

Given this is tagged as scientific-language and technical, and the fact that the words is used often in legal contexts such as patent work, plurality should be acceptable, and will certainly be succinct and accurate.

7
  • Hi @jimm101! Thanks for your answer! I'm aware of the term "plurality", but it just feels very uncommon, especially when talking about a context that doesn't involve voting, you know? So in the example of the M&M's, how would you actually phrase it? Something like "The plurality of the M&M's are red"? Or "The plurality belongs to the red M&M's"? Or "Red represent the plurality of the M&M's in the bag"? I just feel that they all sound pretty unnatural, you know?
    – Felipe D.
    Jan 25, 2023 at 15:30
  • Also, I forgot to mention something important: Yes, I did mark this as technical writing, but the text I'm writing will be made public for everyone, so even though it is in fact technical writing, it still needs to be very reader-friendly. Full disclosure: I'm not actually writing about M&M's, hahahahahaha...
    – Felipe D.
    Jan 25, 2023 at 15:36
  • @FelipeD. Plurality is commonly used outside voting, despite the dictionary's leaning there. Does the context require that the amount NOT be a majority? Or is it to cover both cases? In the US the President can win with a plurality or majority of votes. It has well trained the populace that "majority" means "more than the others" despite that being incorrect in some cases.
    – jimm101
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:04
  • 2
    If it's for a more technical audience, I'd say "More projects (42%) were classified as short term than any other". In a more casual setting, you can drop "than any other", sacrificing clarity for brevity. You could reverse this to "The largest classification was short term".
    – jimm101
    Jan 25, 2023 at 17:10
  • 2
    In addition to @jimm101's suggestions, for a more layperson friendly approach, I suggest outnumber. "We find that short term projects outnumber midterm or long term projects."
    – KnotWright
    Jan 25, 2023 at 18:31
1

The adverbial constructs are less deterministically bounded, but for the adjective, I was surprised to see Merriam-Webster suggesting "greatest in quantity, extent, or degree" for the adjective, especially in 1st place. Most people will interpret it as a majority and will suspect your motives if you use the term for 32% of the M&Ms.

1
  • 1
    What is odd about "most" meaning "greatest in quantity, extent or degree" (M-W sense 1)? "China has the most people in the world" doesn't mean 50%+ of the world's population is in China. This is a different construction to M-W's sense 2 "Most people are Chinese" (which is untrue) but both are valid uses of "most".
    – Stuart F
    Jan 25, 2023 at 12:57
1

How should we describe the largest group in a set when its share accounts for less than 50%?

You have almost given your own answer:

The largest proportion of M&Ms is red.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.