In The ‘Vast Majority’ Of Cases, Are We Sure We Should Use Those Words?

What do you think when you hear the phrase “vast majority?”

Here are some of the answers I got today from 15 correspondents, hosts and editors on the third and fourth floors:

– “More than two-thirds.”

– “At least three-quarters.”

– “Above 90 percent.”

– “Nearly all.”

– “A lot.”

– “A @#$%load.”

– “A boatload.”

– “A phrase that shouldn’t be heard.”

– “An amorphous phrase that means ‘we don’t know how many for sure, but we think it’s a lot.’ ”

The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, offers a definition that begins with this: “Possibly the most over-used, tired and tautological phrase ever to have survived in the English language.”

Thankfully, a search indicates that the phrase “vast majority” doesn’t make it into our stories every day.

But it was still heard 202 times in the past year. The odds are a bit better than 50-50 that it will be said in the next 24 hours.

That’s a problem.

After all, since we can’t seem to agree on what the words mean or when they should be put together, it seems reasonable to conclude that listeners aren’t sure either. What’s more, attaching the word “vast” to “majority” is a judgment call. Who’s saying it’s a “vast majority?” What’s the proof? Maybe it’s just a “significant” majority. Or a “sizeable” one. Or just a majority.

When possible, the best course is to use facts rather than just the “vast majority” label. Establish, for example, that
“92 percent of those surveyed agreed” and then, perhaps, talk about what such a “vast majority” means.

This brings to mind other guidance about:

Avoiding clich├ęs.

Labels.

Killing adjectives.

Precision writing and editing.

Words that get abused.

Note: My thanks to listener/reader Anne Sovik for suggesting we look into “vast majority.”

(Memmos; March 18, 2015)

March 18, 2015

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