Choosing words carefully

Business writers take pride in writing clear, concise, grammatically correct communications. But sometimes even the most precise communicators have difficulty knowing exactly the right word to choose:

Dear Style Master: One of my coworkers insists on using “percent of employees” in
business communications about management. I think she should be referring to a
“percentage of employees”. Who is correct?

– Fractious

 Dear Fractious: I see these two terms used interchangeably, but somehow “percent of a
number” doesn’t sound right to me. After a little search I learned that percent should always be accompanied by a number; percentage is used when no number is present. So, you might say that 98 percent of company employees reported satisfaction with the new time-reporting
software, and only a small percentage of employees had difficulty using the application. Fractious, I think you are correct!

The answer to your question is, in my opinion, unambiguous. But read on for a couple of word-choice questions that don’t have such definite answers:

Dear Style Master: When do I use “less” and when do I use “fewer” with percentages? I know to use “fewer” with countable nouns and “less” with nouns you can’t count, but are percentages considered countable or mass nouns?

Less Than Certain

 Dear Uncertain: To me, you are referring to a number of countable things when you speak of percentages. For example, you might say that fewer than ten percent of employees have difficulty using the new time keeping system. The noun employees is countable.

The trouble is that different style guides give us different direction. The experts at Chicago
Manual Online say that less is ok with percentages, because tradition holds that you use less when referring to time, amount, or distance. Percentages are amounts. But the AP stylebook agrees with me that, since you can count employees, fewer is correct.

If you look at online forums on style, you’ll see a lot of argument on this subject. So the answer is less. Or fewer. Either way, you’re certain to be correct.

Dear Style Master: Prior to encountering my current editor, I used “prior to” all the time in my project documents. But now, my editor is suggesting that I use “before” instead. Why?

Professional Documentation Project Manager (PDPM)

Dear Pro: Some editors say that prior to is grammatically incorrect because prior is an adjective (I couldn’t come to the party last night because I had a prior commitment). Others think prior to is just an affected, bureaucratic phrase that means before.  However, dictionaries generally
accept prior to as an informal noun phrase. So, prior to doesn’t seem to be flat out incorrect. It’s just annoying. I suggest using before to mean before and prior as an adjective, even if you’re a bureaucrat. (I’d also use after instead of subsequent to.)

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