Percentages are not always meant to be numerical

This Elephant of Style award in the category of the numerically inept goes to my hometown rag, the Olean Times Herald, which in its July 12 issue was so enamored of the following statement that the words not only comprise the third paragraph but also are highlighted in the sidebar spot: “On average, you’re average assessment is probably 35 percent too high or 35 percent too low.”

O the inspired error that can violate rules grammatical and mathematical in a single swoop. Well, technically it’s not a grammar violation and probably not mathematics, either, but that does have a nice ring, don’t you think?

Consider, though, the ability to take an average and arrive at two different choices, either 35% high or 35% low. How do you calculate an average that allows that? Perhaps the double use of the word “average” (“On average, you’re average assessment…”) mixed with the rules of probability (“…is probably 35 percent too high or 35 percent too low”) allow this sort of multiple choice statistics. It’s beyond my poor powers to explain, and thus the award.

On a footnote, we might add that the Times Herald should be required to share the valor of this award, for the statement is actually a quotation from Brian Pavlock of the NYS Office of Real Property Services, but I suspect Mr. Pavlock would decline. I also suspect he will hope to be more kindly quoted in the future (or more circumspect when speaking in the vicinity of the Times Herald reporters).

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