The Grammarphobia Blog

Does the majority rule?

Q: Even people on NPR will speak of a “majority” of something when I’d use “most.” Doesn’t one deal with a number of items while the other with a portion of something? Or has usage changed when I wasn’t looking?

A: Many usage guides discourage the use of “majority” for things that aren’t being counted. So they would frown on “The majority of the cake was eaten,” or “He slept through the majority of the ballet.”

In such instances, usage commentators would prefer “most.” They would save “majority” for referring to more than half of a number of items, as in “a majority of votes” or “the majority of the contestants.”

However, the majority rules in English, and dictionaries now accept using “majority” in a looser sense.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes “the greater number or part” among its definitions of “majority.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this definition: “the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).”

In fact, the noun “majority” meant simply a state of superiority when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the word took on its meaning of more than half the number of items.

Although most of the OED citations for this sense use “majority” strictly, an 1882 item from the journal Nature takes a looser approach: “The majority of the coral which I collected … was obtained by divers.”

Today, as we’ve said, standard dictionaries consider the looser meaning standard English. Can the usage guides be far behind?

But just because lexicographers (or language mavens) say a usage is OK doesn’t mean you have to use it.

We’d rather eat most of the cake, not the majority of it – that is, if we weren’t on a diet!

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.